If you’re a fan of M*A*S*H*, then you are well aware of “Suicide is Painless,” the show’s iconic theme song. If you’ve never heard that song, then just reading its title alone is confusing! You’re telling me the theme to M*A*S*H* is a song called “Suicide is Painless”? It is a bit baffling, and its title becomes even stranger when you listen to it and hear how truly beautiful it is. Regardless, it has gone on to be a staple of one of the most beloved shows ever made and has lived on playing on people’s TV screens for decades now. But that’s not even the best part: the song’s origins are not one that you’d expect at all.
What Is ‘M*A*S*H*’ About?
M*A*S*H* started as a highly acclaimed 1970 satirical movie from Robert Altman, and spun off into one of the most emotionally multi-faceted shows ever made. In just under half an hour an episode, this series will make you roll on the floor laughing to crying your eyes out. For 11 years, audiences got to tune in regularly and hang out with the gang at the 4077th United States’ Mobile Army Surgical Unit, and in the 40-odd years since the series ended, people have continued visiting the gang. Among classic characters are none other than Hawkeye (Alan Alda), Trapper John (Wayne Rogers), Hot Lips (Loretta Swift), and Radar (Gary Burghoff). There’s a comfort to turning on M*A*S*H* that just can’t be beat, and a safety in knowing exactly what you’ll get every time you turn it on. One of those things that set the tone so well is its classic, quiet opening theme, “Suicide is Painless.”
‘M*A*S*H*’s Theme Song Has a Few Versions
There are a few different versions of “Suicide is Painless” that float through different M*A*S*H* releases. There’s the most famous composition, with the lyrics, band, and all, written and recorded for the M*A*S*H* movie, the instrumental that was purposed for the show’s opening, and the big band recording that plays at the credits of every episode. Each of these runs through the same motif and various melodies of the original song, but captures different degrees of sadness or happiness (yes, happiness in a song called “Suicide is Painless”).
Any way you roll it, Johnny Mandel composed a truly beautiful track for the M*A*S*H* movie. The single version of the song (the one with vocals, a band, and orchestral arrangements) is a folk ballad masterpiece. Mandel opens the track plucking softly on an acoustic guitar, walking up and down a minor chord as light chimes ring out in the background. It paints a somber picture that perfectly reflects the opening line, “Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be.” “Suicide is Painless” tells the story of a depressed individual who sees their death coming imminently, and no matter what they do, they can’t escape it.
The lyrics only grow more devastating with powerful passages like “The sword of time will pierce our skins. It doesn’t hurt when it begins, but as it works its way on in, the pain grows stronger, watch it grin”. As the track moves along, Mandel sneakily ushers in one instrument and vocal harmony after the next, ultimately bringing the song to its operatic climactic head. Few songs are as well constructed, paced, and performed as this. Its two-minute and 53-second length flies by in a blink, one that’ll leave you a little misty-eyed, not only from its gut-wrenching lyrics but also its immaculately produced sonic textures. Folk ballads don’t get better than this.
How Did the ‘M*A*S*H*’ Theme Song Come About?
Why would a song this sad be written for a satirical comedy? Well, according to a 2008 interview with Mandel, director Robert Altman had a certain scene in mind that needed an original song, and he knew exactly who to go to. The two had previously collaborated on Altman’s film That Cold Day in the Park, a film with a much different score than M*A*S*H* that was written on music boxes and inspired by 19th-century music. When approaching this song in particular (as opposed to the rest of M*A*S*H*’s score), there wasn’t yet the idea that it would open and close a TV show, either, so the stakes were low.
Johnny Mandel was simply tasked with writing a soft rock song and recalls Altman telling him, “You know, I need a song for the film. It’s that Last Supper scene, after the guy says he’d [go] to do himself with a pill because his life is over.” Mandel wasn’t quite expecting to write a song with lyrics, but Altman further explained, “Yeah, that Last Supper scene where the guy climbs into the casket and everybody walks around the box dropping in things like scotch, Playboy and other stuff to see him into the next world. There’s just dead air there.” There were two characters in the background of the scene, one who would sing and another with a guitar, who were intended to be performing the song and fill out the “dead air” that the scene had without it.
“Suicide Is Painless” Has an Unexpected Lyricist
Altman just had two requirements. The first was that the song had to be called “Suicide is Painless,” and the other being, “It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written.” Both Mandel and Altman thought that they could deliver on stupid lyrics, but a few days later, concluded that they were too old to achieve the level of stupidity that they desired. Thankfully, they weren’t out of luck. Mandel quotes Robert Altman as saying, “All is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a total idiot.” That’s when the two of them brought in Michael Altman, the idiot 15-year-old that his father referred to. Michael ended up writing the lyrics, whereas Mandel would compose the track’s instrumentation. Robert Altman ended up so pleased with “Suicide is Painless” that, much to Mandel’s chagrin, he used it over the movie’s opening credits as well. It makes you wonder how he feels about the song being used over M*A*S*H* the TV show’s opening credits too!
The lyrics of “Suicide is Painless” don’t exactly scream “the stupidest song ever written” like Altman hoped, but that doesn’t make it any less of a great piece of music. It’s one of the few TV show theme songs that you can listen to and enjoy without the show and not feel weird about it. This isn’t like you’re blasting the SpongeBob theme or anything, Johnny Mandel and the Altmans crafted something truly special. Its beginnings are strange, but “Suicide is Painless” lives on not only as a fantastic TV theme song but as a wonderful folk ballad on its own.
THE BIG PICTURE
- The iconic M*A*S*H* theme song, “Suicide is Painless,” is beautiful and surprisingly emotional.
- There are different versions of the song, including one with vocals and orchestral arrangements, each capturing different levels of emotions.
- The song was written for a scene in the M*A*S*H* movie and the lyrics were written by Robert Altman’s son.