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Suicide Is Painless

by

Johnny Mandel



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

This was the theme song of the movie and TV series M*A*S*H. The version used in the 1970 movie is the complete song, while the TV show used a much shorter instrumental version. M*A*S*H might be the most successful TV adaptation of a movie, at least until Buffy The Vampire Slayer came along.
The lyrics used in the movie intro were written by Mike Altman. He is the son of Robert Altman, who got a big break when he directed M*A*S*H. Robert Altman went on to direct Popeye, Cookie's Fortune and Gosford Park.
Altman penned the lyrics at the age of only 14. His father told Johnny Carson that, while he himself was paid only $70,000 for directing the film, Mike made over a $1 million from the song.
Marilyn Manson covered this in 2000 as the theme for the sequel to the movie The Blair Witch Project. Manson said this is "More depressing and offensive than anything I've ever written."
In 2006, this was covered by Lady & Bird, which is a side project of French singer Keren Ann.
In 1992 the Welsh Rock band Manic Street Preachers covered this for the NME 40th anniversary album Ruby Trax. Released as a single, it peaked at #7 in the UK.
Johnny Mandel
More Johnny Mandel songs
More songs about depression
More songs that were TV show theme songs

Comments (46):

On January 25th 1970, the Robert Altman movie "M*A*S*H" had its world premier in New York City...
It won a Golden Globe Award for 'Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy)'...
And was nominated for five Academy Awards and won one ('Best Screenplay' for Ring Lardner, Jr.)...
The TV series premiered on September 17th, 1972 and ran for 11 seasons with 256 episodes (Alan Alda appeared in the most episodes, 251).
- Barry, Sauquoit, NY
Loved the movie, love the song, hated the series. Alan Alda is NOT Hawkeye Pierce.
- Terry, Valliant, OK
I love the movie and the TV Series. I still watch it on METV (Memoriable Entertainment Television) every chance I get. The words to that theme song is real deep.
- lynn, Greensboro, NC
Does anyone know who sang the version of this song in the film during the Last Supper scene? It has slightly different lyrics from the theme version and the others....including the TV version and the cover by The Manic Street Preachers. I think that the singer has a brilliant voice and the acoustic guitar accompaniment is beautiful - even surpassing the original theme version.
- John, Donegal, Ireland
This piece of music will forever be associated with the TV program "M*A*S*H". My nephew learned to play it when he was in high school band. I wonder if it's still considered "appropriate" music for today's woodwind players to learn?
- Carolyn, Knoville, TN
i can say it is very possible for a teen to write such lyrics like this. Since i was a toddler i have suffered from bad case of bi-polar it causes survire depression. As i got older into my pre-teens and teens the depression would drive me over the edge with no way to release the pressure that my depression would weigh on me. So i started writing ever time i would hit heavy depression i wrote lyrics/poetry. it helped a little, but most of it is been labelled as sad, morbid, dark, or i had issues. LOL, duh... im a suicidal manic depressive bi polar LOL, of course i have issues and it showed in my writings. Anyways for some reason i kept them not because i thought they were any good just because it was my feelings and didnt want anyone to see them so i had hidden them. One day in my late twentys my husband ran across them and urged me to share them & entire them in a contest. I did, and they had brought out alot of feelings and tears from people who had read them. so really to my surprize my writings won them to be published as well as put me inline for nomination award. So IT IS VERY POSSIBLE that a teen and even preteen can write such lyrics.
as far as his lyrics they can go either way, either a teen who had an his version of an understanding to suicide or had a related part to a certain exact part of war that war leaves behind in the minds and life of the survively wounded soliders. because alot of them after war has disfigured them, they have asked "WHY" the have concidered suicide. And they have and those war soliders have had the thought "take it or leave it if I please" otherwise if it gets to much for me to handle i can if i please or i can keep trying to go on like this too if i please. thats just my version of what i see in it.
- rachel, buckeye, AZ
There was an intermittent dentist in the first seasons of the TV show, I think they nicknamed him "Jaawbreaker" instead of "Painless." And what sarah said, comparing MASH to Buffy is like comparing Martin Luther King to David Duke. Not happening.
- Willie, Scottsdale, AZ
Ms. Sara MacKenzie, I'm sure this song, as with much prose can be interpreted many ways, however if you or anyone else has seen the Movie (not TV Series) MASH, you will see that the lyrics of the song is about suicide. Watch the movie the lyrics parallel.
- Illya, Newburgh, IN
This is a beautiful song. I have no problem believing the lyrics were written by a young teenager. Mozart was composing small pieces by 5 years old. Edgar Allan Poe published his first book at 18.

Anyway, I don't think the lyrics were meant to be about war. I think the kid just understood that some people view life as full of pain and understood why they would consider ending it.

I think the "take it or leave it if I please," part would lead more people to believe that the song is simply about the option being there - which is always comforting to genuinely unhappy people.

Speaking of war, I don't think anyone has mentioned this yet - but MASH was based in the Korean war, not Vietnam.
- Jason, Varies, LA
Mash is one of the best written shows ever.
- brian, boston, MA
It's very sad that so many here don't believe that the a 13-14 year old teen, was capable of writing these lyrics....There are a lot of very talented young people out there regardless of the era. I knew a couple of fellows that, I went to school with years ago. Who were already near master's at Poetry and Rhyming and they weren't too much older than he( Mike ) would've been!........Plus I'm willing to bet Mike was probably as outraged by Viet Nam, as anyone else was at the time and put his youthful sadness and anxt into a very telling piece of work. Perhaps he was also a little sceared too. At the possible prospect of being drafted and forced to fight over there himself if the war were to go on for a few more years.
- Nicholaus, Tracy, CA
No one has answered the key question: Who really wrote the lyrics? It is not credible that Altman's just teenage son wrote the lyrics and then never did another thing. Mike Altman are you out there or is this an apocryphal
scam? What have you done since you were 14, some 39 years ago? Did your Dad or Mandel really write ht lyrics?
- Duke, San Francisco,
M*A*S*H* was one of the greatest anti-war films of that era. Watch the movie, then listen to the song. It will make more sense. Then you can take a "black capsule" with confidence. Just ask Painless.
- Walchung, Hickory, NC
It seems like a lot of people posing in the thread haven't really watched the movie. Dr. Painless is widely known, in addition to being a great dentist, as being the "best hung dentist in the Army", so much so that otherwise hetero men line up to peek in amazement at his penis. (In fact, one of them says, I'd love to see that thing angry.") He becomes depressed about the war and loses his ability to get it up and decides he wants to end it all, asking his doctor buddies to help him commit suicide the easy way. The doctors in the unit go along with it, but, in a hilarious parody of Da Vinci's "Last Supper", instead of a suicide pill they give him something to make sure he gets it up. Then they slip a notoriously hot and horny nurse (not "Hot Lips") into his "death tent". She lifts up the "shroud" to discover a raging hard-on. The very next morning he's back to normal. As far as "what it's about," in the context of the movie it is just to lull Dr. Painless to "sleep". I doubt it has much more real meaning than that. I don't find it all that deprssing as the most significant line of the song is "I can take or leave it if I please" a choice we all have about life every day. It's saying, "sure, you can off yourself, but you always have the choice to go on living", which is what the doctors in the movie, and teevee show, did, choose to go on living in spite of the pain and futility of the situation they found themselves in, dealing with results of the idiocy and pointlessness of war. FWIW, I sing this song in karaoke clubs occasionally and it's always a hit...
- Richard, Cypress, TX
Does anyone know what happened to Mike Altman after 1970? I hope that with that kind of talent, he went on to write other songs, or books, or poems, or something. I'd hate to think that early success plus a famous father did him in.
- Teri, Boston, MA
I can believe that a 14 year old wrote these lyrics. Isn't that about the age when kids have to read Shakespear's Hamlet? Go back and read the lyrics and see for yourself. If it's not about Hamlet then it's how teens feel about having to read and write about in order to pass highschool.
- Lalah, Wasilla, AK
Hard to believe a 14 yr old wrote the lyrics to this song... (btw- the lyrics section is missing a few verses) If I can find my copies, I will update the lyrics.
Jim.
- Jim, Somewhere, PA
i don't know how anyone can listen or read the lyrics to this song and think it is a light hearted jab at the idea of suicide.
- mike, ny, NY
I saw Johnny Mandel in Hollywood, and he confirmed that this song was commissioned to fill in when the dentist "committed suicide". He wanted something silly and over the top. Robert Altman couldn't come up with anything to fit the Mandel's melody. After a few days Altman called Mandel with lyrics written by his son.
After the song was auditioned and accepted for said scene, it was propositioned as the movie's theme. When the movie became a series, the theme was used, though it was rearranged without the lyrics. Mandel has made a lot of money and fame from this "happy accident".
- daniel, Lewiston, ME
Wow! lots of comments! First of all everyone is thinking too much. Step back. It is a good song. Can't people just admit that it is a good song and is of the caliber of the movie and TV show M*A*S*H. I would recomend that anyone watch both! They are great!
- Annie, Portland, ME
Yeah dude, everyone is really thinking into this too much. The kid just wrote it because he was asked to. He was most likely given a sequence to write it for (i.e. the suicide scene with Dr. Painless) and he just used that to help him write it. The song is just a play on words..."suicide is 'Painless.'"
- Chris, St. Louis, MO
it isn't that bad that a 14 year old wrote it he wrote it for his dads movie
- amy, wichita, KS
To the first post if a 14 year old boy was writing prose this dark it would be wicked scary. I would think he would need a little trip to the head doctor. The references really fall back to the insanity of war and the imotional termoil it spawns within an individual where death itself seems a logical way to end the pain.
- John, boston, ME
Really, you are all thinking too deeply about this. The song was written by a 14-year-old child who was told to write a song for his father's movie. It was written specifically for the suicide sequence in the movie and just blew up from there. It was used as the theme song for the TV show because it fit with the show's dark humor.

On an interesting note, Mike Altman actually made more money from that song than his father did for directing the movie that it was written for. Ironic isn't it.
- Chris, St. Louis, MO
now wait just one minute. wasn't it that one of the doctors said, "I wonder if suicide is painless" and it was met by silence? i think that's where the title came from.
- Kate, Harrison, NY
I like the movie M*A*S*H,but the t.v. series was good till the about the season 7 forward.The song is great and I know I felt that way at 14.
- Jerome, Chula Vista, CA
The song is meant to be an allegory about how the United States should withdraw from the Vietnam conflict, stating that suicide (the military withdrawal) would be painless (i.e. not harm the security of the U.S.) and is inevitable (due to the mounting casualties and anti-war sentiment in the U.S.).
- chris, sydney, United States
Didn't the character in the movie who planned to commit suicide become depressive because he couldn't get it up? And then at the mock wake he discovers otherwise?
- fyodor, Denver, CO
i'm sorry to be rude people, but...THIS SONG IS NOT ABOUT SUICIDE, IT'S ABOUT A M*A*S*H UNIT AND THE RISKS OF WAR!!!! why, then, use it in the movie as a theme? "suicide" is the term of risking one's life for your country and it's like suicide. the "early morning fog" is the choppers that bring the wounded, and the rest is survival in a war zone. god, they just didn't use the WHOLE song in the series because they thought that the song would be misunderstood as "go ahead, commit suicide," which the catholic church considers a sin in the eyes of god. as for the last verse...this one usually chokes me up, i admit it, but the wounded guy is asking whether or not he's going to live, hence "is it to be or not to be?" and the reply of "o, why ask me?" THAT is what "suicide is painless" is about. powerful words from the person who wrote it (forgot who...damn it)
- Sara MacKenzie, Middle of Nowhere, FL
I think you shoudl all look past the meaning and lyrics of Suicide and Painless and first look at the fact that a 14 year old wrote the song. Then when you look at the lyrics it REALLY makes you think.
- Ryan, Windsor, Canada
is it true that the tv show only has the instruments because they felt the songs message was to strong and could offend some viewers
also it suxs that marilyn manson covered this song
- stacey, Nowra, Australia
Like what Russ in England said, I think this song is about potential suicide. It sounds like the protagonist in this song is confiding in a friend about possibly committing suicide. He is streaming out dark observances about his or her own life and saying "I can kill myself if I want to", a final act of control on a life of someone who feels powerless.
- Brian, La Mesa, CA
when somebody close to you kill him or herself the clos ones to that person will try put back the puzzle saying why he did that. That is what happend to me when my brother in law killed him self you wonder why.
- kyle, hamptonbays, NY
Bill Evans played a version of Suicide is Painless with his Trio in Boston at Lulu Whites. The show was recorded on October 30th, 1979 and rebroadcast on WGBH a few years back. The version is fairly short, but then again, so is the orignal arrangement. Since "Everybody Digs Bill Evans", I figure any scholar of the tune will love to hear Evan's fantastic rendition.
- Mike, San Diego, CA
The song is played in the movie whene the tooth docotr or what ever they are called when he wants to commite sucide. in the lyrics it says that sucide brings many changes that is true that already happend to me when somebody close to me hung himself.
- kyle, hampton bays, NY
I thought Nick Drake wrote this song. He did commit suicide.
- Jeff, Quincy, CA
Painless for the person doing so, yes. For those left behind? Doubtful.
- Kurdt, Intercourse, PA
Composer Johnny Mandel has this to say about how this song came about: "It was written for that last supper scene, and because it actually had to be played by one of the actors, it had to be written before the movie was shot. [Director Robert] Altman wanted something that was funny and kind of stupid to accompany this scene, and he came back after three days and said, 'I can't write anything that ridiculous.' So he got his teenage son to do it, and I wrote what you now know as the 'Theme From MASH' to those lyrics."
- Martijn, Helmond, Netherlands
This song i feel about not committing suicide. The key lyric is "...take or leave it if i please"
By maintaining the option of suicide, it means that you neaver actually do it. Maybe this is a comment on defeatism in context of the Vietnam war. It's about recognising the suffering of people in a hopeless situation.
- russ, Chester-leStreet, England
the song is a clever play on the name of Painless but it has a deeper meaning. Suicide maybe painless for the the person after the event, but the refrain says that "I can take it or leave it". By keeping the choice of suicide, it means that you never commit it. this is an allusion to Vietnam, the song rejects defeatism but acknowedges the sufering and the want to get out of it.
All the recordings i can find of this song dont hae the 2nd and 4th verse. What gives?
- russ, Chester-leStreet, England
This song is so sad...
- Annabeth, Kutztown, PA
"Painless" was the name of one of the MASH staff, who decided to lie down and let himself die. The rest of the group hold a wake for him, he finds inspiration to continue on, but the song title is a play on that scene in the movie.
- Keith, SLC, UT
I love Richey Edwards and i didnt know that about his car getting found, omg!! I really like this song, the Manson version is better than the original
- Rian, London, United States
I would have to argue about that Buffy comment, because although my love for the show, at times, borders on the inappropriate, the final episode didn't set viewing records that probably have yet to be broken. While Buffy is critically acclaimed (and with good reason) it never reached a tenth of the popularity that M.A.S.H. achieved.
- sarah, Salem, MA
The person closest to me, my brother Steven, committed suicide in 2000.
I think the lyrics pretty much cover it; somebody knows their stuff, you can bet your ass on that.
Thanks.
Tonnie Goddard Moon
PlayitagainSam@aol.com
- Tonnie, orig. CA living in TN, TN
Covered by Manic Street Preachers in 1992 for "Ruby Trax", a charity album in aid of the Spastics Society (now called Scope) in conjunction with BBC Radio 1 and the New Musical Express magazine. On Feb 1st, 1995 Manic Street Preachers' rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared from a London Hotel. His car was found near the Severn Bridge, a well-known suicide spot.
- Simon, Nowheresville, AZ
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