‘M*A*S*H’: Why the Theme Song Was Supposed to Be ‘the Stupidest Song Ever Written’

One of the most famous elements of the M*A*S*H franchise is its theme music, “Suicide Is Painless.” The song was designed to be “the stupidest song ever written.” Here’s a look at why that was the case — and why the song for a comedy series is so dark.

Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, and Loretta Swit in M*A*S*H
A scene from M*A*S*H | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The point of ‘Suicide Is Painless’ in the film ‘M*A*S*H’

So why is the theme of M*A*S*H called “Suicide Is Painless?” It goes back to the original film. One of the secondary characters is a dentist named Capt. Walter Kosciuszko Waldowski who goes by the nickname The Painless Pole. The Painless Pole is such a womanizer he decides he must actually be compensating for being gay. He decides living as a gay man is too difficult, so he wants to kill himself. This sequence is probably the most dated and offensive element of M*A*S*H, as it makes light of suicide among LGBT people.

As The Painless Pole prepares to die, one of the soldiers plays the song “Suicide Is Painless” to him. The Painless Pole takes what he believes is a poison pill but is actually a sleeping pill. The title of “Suicide Is Painless” is a clear reference to The Painless Pole. While the film M*A*S*H gave “Suicide Is Painless” some notoriety, it would become truly iconic thanks to the movie’s spinoff television series, which used an instrumental version of the track as a theme song.

A scene from M*A*S*H

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How a teenager got the chance to write the ‘M*A*S*H’ theme

While “Suicide Is Painless” has dark lyrics, its has a pretty melody. Oddly enough, composer Johnny Mandel told NPR the song was supposed to be stupid. Why? Director Robert Altman wanted it that way.

“‘It should be the stupidest song ever written,'” Mandel recalls Altman saying. “I said, ‘Well, I can do stupid.’ He says, ‘The song should be called ‘Suicide Is Painless.’”

Altman felt his version of the song was insufficient. Mandel recalled “[Altman] said, ‘Ah, but all is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a gibbering idiot. He’s got a guitar. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts.'” Ultimately, Altman’s teenage son, Mike Altman, earned $1 million from writing the song. Meanwhile, his father only made $700,000 for directing the film.

“Suicide Is Painless”

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How the world reacted to ‘Suicide Is Painless’

According to MeTV, “Suicide Is Painless” became a hit, reaching the top of the charts in the United Kingdom. This version of the song was credited to a fake band called The Mash, which included a number of singers who worked on television shows like Wonder Woman and Happy Days.

“Suicide Is Painless” is so famous its had a place in pop culture outside of the M*A*S*H universe. For example, Marilyn Manson covered it for the film Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. “Suicide Is Painless” did pretty well for a song that was designed to be stupid.

How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text HOME to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor at the free Crisis Text Line.