Inside the theme song: M*A*S*H’s ”Suicide Is Painless”

From a teenager's mind to No. 1 on the charts.


The theme song to the M*A*S*H television series is melancholy, sure, but it would have given the dramatic sitcom an even darker tone if they kept the lyrics. Yes, the song has lyrics. 

“Suicide Is Painless” appeared in the 1970 MASH motion picture, directed by Robert Altman. The tune was originally intended to only appear within the film.

If you never saw the movie, here’s the gist. The dentist of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, “Painless Pole” Waldowski (John Schuck), declares his desire to commit suicide. Nobody believes his feigned depression. In fact, his prank-loving tentmates throw him a “Last Supper,” where Private Seidman sings poor Painless Pole a tune, “Suicide Is Painless.” 

So that’s the origin of the title. Altman loved the song so much, he decided to use it as the movie’s main theme. But when it came to the television series, CBS was probably not to jazzed about having viewers sing along to a song with “suicide” in its refrain each week. A pleasant instrumental version — with that appropriate undercurrent of sadness — was recorded for the TV show. 

You’ve heard it dozens of times. But we bet there are little details and facts you missed. Let’s gas up the choppers and explore this classic television theme.

1. It was co-written by a 14 year old. And it was meant to be “stupid.”

The “M. Altman” receiving credit on the record was none other than Mike Altman, the teenage son of Robert Altman. The director first took a crack at writing the lyrics himself. However, he felt his output was not “stupid enough.” He wanted the song to be the “stupidest song ever written,” you see. “I’ve got a kid who’s a total idiot,” he told his composer Johnny Mandel. So he gave it to his 14-year-old kid. Teenage boys are experts at stupid.

Image: Discogs

2. The kids wrote the lyrics in five minutes.

Mike Altman took to the task with relish, dashing out the lyrics in a mere five minutes.

3. Mike Altman made more money from MASH than Robert Altman.

Robert Altman may have been looking for an “idiot,” but the joke was on the director. In an interview with Johnny Carson in the 1980s, Altman revealed he had been paid $70,000 to helm the film. His son raked in more than $1 million in songwriting royalties. For good reason…

Image: AP Photo / Levy

4. The song went No. 1 in the U.K.

A decade after its initial release, “Suicide Is Painless” helicoptered to the top of the charts in the United Kingdom, thanks to a newly recorded version. The single was credited to an act called The Mash, which was not a true band…

5. The singers you hear also did the theme songs to Batman, Wonder Woman, Happy Days and more.

Ron Hicklin, John Bahler, Tom Bahler and Ian Freebairn-Smith received no credit on the smash MASH single. Hicklin, Bahler and Bahler were studio pros with dozens of television credits. The Ron Hicklin Singers had belted out themes for BatmanThat GirlFlipperHappy DaysLaverne & ShirleyWonder Woman and Love, American Style. Oh, and they also harmonized on load of commercial jingles, like the “You deserve a break today” heard in McDonald’s ads.

6. The man who wrote the music had an Oscar and an Emmy.

We’ve talked a lot about Altman, so let’s give some love to Johnny Mandel, the man who composed the music and crafted the melody. After all, we are more familiar with the instrumental. Mandel was a musical prodigy, which gave him an early start as an arranger and jazzman. He worked with everyone from Count Basie to Frank Sinatra. The New Yorker had other lovely songs to his credit. “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from the 1965 Liz Taylor flick The Sandpiper, won both Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.

7. The theme heard in the pilot is twice as long.

Time to dig into the gritty little details of the tune itself. Speaking of time, have you ever clocked the theme song through the MAS*H series? It started out much longer. In the pilot episode — and in the pilot episode alone — an extended version plays for about a minute and a half. It is the only episode to not open immediately with the theme. The tune arrives a couple minutes in, after some comedic establishing shots of the characters. Clips from the musical montage were used in the opening credits throughout its 11 seasons — with some changes.

8. The song got shorter and then a little longer again.

The 90-second pilot was chopped in half, to a 45-second version heard in the early seasons. Later, after the departure of Trapper John and the arrival of B.J., Mike Farrell was cut into the opening credits. If you clock later seasons, the tune plays for about 50 seconds. On a side note, as B.J. changed, so did the shot of him helping in the opening credits. The shot of Hawkeye, on the other hand, remained unchanged from the pilot episode.

9. You probably never noticed there were different versions of the TV theme.

When you compare them, you can also hear differences in the instrumentals used in early seasons and later seasons. The acoustic guitar opening the track is subtly but noticeably different. The earlier version features single-string plucking, while the later version has more of a harmonic chord plucking. Oh, and while we’re talking about minor changes: Did you ever notice the wounded man on the helicopter goes from dangling his bloody arm over the side to being wrapped up a blanket?

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