Why MASH Couldn’t Use Its Original Theme (& What The Song Actually Meant)

CBS made some changes to the MASH's original theme song before the iconic medical comedy-drama can use it because of one important reason.


  •  MASH’s original theme song couldn’t be used on the show because it talks about suicide, which doesn’t align with the lighthearted tone CBS wants.
  •  The instrumental version of “Suicide Is Painless” is used for the MASH TV show because the lyrics are too grim.
  •  Although the song doesn’t have a direct connection to the sitcom, it remains difficult to imagine MASH with a different theme than “Suicide Is Painless.”

MASH‘s original theme song couldn’t be used on the TV show because of one particular reason. CBS’ hit series is regarded as one of, if not the best sitcom of all time. Following the 4077 MASH unit during the Korean War, MASH puts Alan Alda’s Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and his colleagues as they deal with the causalities of war, all while trying to make sense of their own thoughts about it. Over the years, MASH has gone through several cast exits and arrivals, but it is still able to always find its footing because the show’s storytelling is always a priority.

Running for 256 episodes, including a super-sized finale that remains to be the most-watched television episode of a scripted series ever, MASH features a lot of iconic moments. Despite ending four decades ago, many of the show’s running gags continue to be at the forefront of pop culture. Among the many memorable bits from MASH includes Max Klinger’s penchant for wearing dresses and Radar O’Reilly predicting everything Henry Blake is about to say. Aside from those, the show is already remembered for its opening scene, which is accompanied by an instrumental theme song.

Why MASH Couldn’t Use The Movie’s Full Theme Song

MASH opening scene

The theme song to CBS’ MASH was adapted from the 1970 film, which is the first live-action adaptation of Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. Titled “Suicide Is Painless,” the music is written by Johnny Mandel, while the lyrics are by Michael Altman. It isn’t meant to be the MASH movie’s theme. Instead, it is written for Ken Prymus’ Private Seidman to sing during Walter “Painless Pole” Waldowski (John Schuck) in the film’s “Last Supper” scene — something that isn’t in the CBS sitcom. The MASH film director, Director Robert Altman, likes it so much that he decides to use it as the feature’s main theme.

While MASH doesn’t shy away from heavier topics, CBS still wants the series to be more lighthearted than not. Since the film’s theme talks about suicide, the network doesn’t allow the sitcom to use the original version of “Suicide Is Painless.” Opening Altman’s 1970 film with it somehow works, but using it as the introduction to a weekly sitcom with over 200 episodes would be too dark and grim. So the best way around it is to remove the lyrics, maintain the already memorable theme, and overlay it with MASH‘s iconic opening sequence featuring arriving helicopters on the hills of Uijeongbu, South Korea.

What MASH’s Theme Song Is Actually About

MASH TV show and movie

The MASH TV show only used the instrumental version of “Suicide Is Painless” because the words to the song are way too grim. As the title suggests, it talks about one’s personal thoughts on committing suicide while living in a world of hopelessness and apathy. Since the show doesn’t include the sequence that inspired the song, it really doesn’t have any ties to the CBS sitcom other than the fact that it is associated with the MASH movie. Despite that, it’s difficult to imagine MASH having a different theme than “Suicide Is Painless”

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