‘M*A*S*H’ Theme Song: The Real Story Behind “Suicide is Painless”

Through early morning fog, I see visions of the things to be. And those things today, are updates on everyone’s favorite Captains and Majors and Corporals. M*A*S*H became a household favorite from film to show and gained fans around the world. Let’s take a look at the song that introduced each episode.

The helicopters taxiing in, the horn section bellows, the medics running into a place. It’s pretty eerie for the opening of a show that would be categorized as a situational comedy— or dramedy. So what gives?

About M*A*S*H

MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*),
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), from left: Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Elliott Gould, 1970, TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection

M*A*S*H was one of the greatest pieces of television to ever hit. Premiering in September of 1972, the critically acclaimed show smashed viewing records and was nominated for over 100 Emmys during its 11-year run. Its final episode went on to draw the largest audience of any television show to date with a whopping 125 million viewers. Our guess is that some of you helped pad those numbers. Let’s not forget, the series was based on the 1970s motion picture of M*A*S*H directed by Robert Altman.

The show itself had humble beginnings. The series struggled in its first season and was even at the risk of being canceled.  However, in season two, CBS placed M*A*S*H in a better time slot, airing after the popular classic All in the Family. After this, the show took off. None of this could’ve been done without the creators masterfully crafting a unique brand of humor, blending hilarious slapstick with knee-slapping wit, all the while tackling some of the grimmest realities of the Korean war.

Characters In Both Film and TV Series

MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), Alan Alda,
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), Alan Alda, (19721983). TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Television. All Rights Reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection

Who could forget Hawkeye Pierce played by Donald Sutherland in the film but probably better known as Alan Alda from the tv version. The wisecracking, drinking, womanizing of a surgeon was a hoot!  “I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash-and-carry, carry me back to Old Virginie, I’ll even ‘hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun.” This famous line said by Alda stayed in fans’ memories for years.

Wayne Rogers (Trapper John)
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H), Wayne Rogers, 1972-83, TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection

Trapper John was played by Elliott Gould in the film, and by Wayne Rogers in the TV series. He was the class clown, the practical joker of a captain, and had a loving wife and daughters. The lovely Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. She was dynamically played by Sally Kellerman in the film and Loretta Swit in the show. Major Frank Burns was portrayed by legendary actor Robert Duvall in the film and Larry Linville on the show. Major Burns would receive a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel before departing the show.

McLean Stevenson as Lt. Blake
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H), McLean Stevenson, 1972-83, TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake was played by Roger Bowen in the film and McLean Stevenson in the TV Series. Father Mulcahy was played by Rene Auberjonois in the film, and in the tv series was portrayed by William Christopher. The character’s last name stayed the same, however for the film, his name switched from John to Frances. The laughable Corporal Radar O’Reilly was played by Gary Burghoff in both productions.

Major Characters in the TV Version Only

MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), Jamie Farr
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), Jamie Farr, (19721983). TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Television. All Rights Reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection

The gender-bending Corporal Maxwell Klinger fantastically portrayed by Jamie Farr. Colonel Sherman T. Potter played by Harry Morgan. Captain B.J. Hunnicutt played Mike Farrell. Major Charles Winchester played by David Ogden Stiers. And finally, a huge part of M*A*S*H, the film but not the show, Captain Duke Forrest, played by DoYouRemember’s longtime friend, Mr. Tom Skerritt. Now, initially, the show focused on the two lead roles from the film. the army surgeon’s captain, Hawkeye, played by Alan Alda, and Capt. Trapper played by Wayne Rogers.

Mike Farrell, Alan Alda, M*A*S*H
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H), from left: Mike Farrell, Alan Alda, 1972-83, TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection

This dynamic however would change significantly throughout the 11 seasons, but despite significant cast changes during the course of its run—including the departure of Rogers, replaced as Hawkeye’s partner in crime by Capt. B.J. Honeycutt, played by Mike Farrell—the series maintained its success through consistently strong performances and great writing (most notably by producer Larry Gelbart). The complex characters were able to learn and grow over time, evolving in a style seldom seen in sitcoms. This was some of the brilliance of the show. Though it was set in the Korean war, M*A*S*H aired in the wake of the Vietnam War, and the antiwar message was never far from viewers’ minds.

The Difference Between TV And Film

M*A*S*H Film Poster
M*A*S*H, (aka MASH), US poster art, 1970. TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved / Courtesy: Everett Collection

So back to that theme. The ominous yet eerily beautiful M*A*S*H theme song seems to be as unusual as a theme song gets. To start, there were essentially two versions of the title song, one with lyrics and one without. This is not entirely true as In the later seasons of the show there was a very slight difference in the gentle opening notes as well. The acoustic guitar opening the track is slightly, but noticeably different. The earlier version features single-string plucking, while the later version has more of a harmonic chord thing going on.


Second Release of Film Poster
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H), US 1982 re-release poster, bottom from left: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, 1970. TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved/Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Also, the pilot episode had a version where the song arrives a couple of minutes in and was twice as long.  After the departure of Trapper John, the arrival of Mike Farrel was edited into the opening credits. The shot of Hawkeye remained the same. The movie more closely followed the book, which had a much darker and more nihilistic type of comedy. This is probably most evident in Hawkeye and Trapper’s characters the most. This is important in understanding the choice to scrap the lyrics for the show.

Writers and Producers
MASH, (aka M*A*S*H*), writers and producers, from left: Burt Metcalfe, John Rappaport, Dennis Koenig, Dan Wilcox, Thad Mumford, (19721983). TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Television. All Rights Reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection

The television series was never going to use that version; it would have killed the show before it started so instead they just used the instrumental. So brilliantly put by an anonymous blogger, “The movie was a comedy about death. The television series was a comedy about living.”

The Creation of The Song

The Last Supper Scene
MASH, Tom Skerritt, John Schuck, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, 1970 TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection

The theme for M*A*S*H wasn’t even supposed to be the theme of the motion picture, let alone the show. It was written in 1970 for an important scene, “The Last Supper” and was originally made as a song played by one of the actors during a scene. The song was co-written by a 14-year-old and was meant to be “stupid.”

The song had to be written before the movie was shot. Director Robert Altman hired composer Johnny Mandel, who had recently won an Oscar for his song “The Shadow of Your Smile” from the movie The Sandpipers. Alman found himself in a pickle. He needed a song that had a solemn tone but was so bad that it was funny. This leads us to the teenager in question. The “M. Altman” who received credit on the record was none other than Mike Altman, the teenage son of Robert Altman.

Mike Altman
Mike Altman, YouTube Screenshot

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”. He told his composer, “I’ve got a kid who’s a total idiot.” So, he gave it to his son. When the movie went through an editorial process, Mandel heard the song being played over the film’s title in the helicopter scene and protested, saying, “It was the stupidest thing I have ever seen,” and angrily walked out insisting it didn’t fit. The studio ignored his protest and the song was not only heard all over the world, but it earned Mandel his highest copyright revenues. He later remarked, “I’m glad I lost that battle.”

The singers you hear for the opening credits version of the song also performed the theme songs to BatmanWonder WomanThat GirlHappy DaysFlipper, and more. They received no credit for the smash M*A*S*H single.


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