A Song's Story #2: Suicide is Painless

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see...

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

The most amazing thing to me about "Suicide is Painless" (actual title: "Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless)" is that the hard hitting lyrics were written by a 14 year-old, Mike Altman. A 14 year-old! He's the son of Robert Altman, who directed the 1970 movie M*A*S*H. Altman needed the "stupidest song ever written" for the scene in the movie where Walter "Painless Pole" Waldowski fakes his suicide after suffering a bout of impotence with a visiting nurse. Altman tried his hand at writing the lyrics but didn't think they were stupid enough, so he handed the job to his 14 year-old son. Johnny Mandel composed the music.

The result was anything but moronic: Suicide is Painless is one of my favorite TV/movie themes of all time, not because it's depressing but because it's so damn poetic and beautiful. If I ever get around to practicing my guitar again, this song is on my must-learn list. Since most people are accustomed to hearing the cheerful, instrumental version that was used on the series, I highly recommend checking out a cover where the words are sung. I know I included her in the last song's story post, but I really like Ania Dabrowska's version:

One other tidbit about this song to save for your next trivia competition: Robert Altman told Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that his son received over a million dollars in royalties from writing the lyrics, while he received only $70,000 for directing M*A*S*H.


  1. Wow! I love that you told this story.
    I have always like that song too, played it on the piano when I was younger (when I had a piano) Interesting that his kid got $1million bucks - did he go on and continue to write?

  2. Thanks, My Little Corner! Very impressive that you know how to play it on the piano. That's a great question about Altman's son. He's listed on IMDB.com and has worked as a producer, director, writer, and visual director among other gigs! Any TV series that used "Suicide is Painless" is listed in his bio.

  3. Pam,

    Looks like it was a big hit in both Holland and then 10 years later in the UK. This is from Wikipedia.

    No. Title Writer(s) Artist Length
    1. "Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)" Johnny Mandel, Mike Altman The Mash 2:53

    Chart performance

    Chart (1970) Peak
    Dutch GfK chart[9] 3
    Dutch Top 40[10] 4

    Chart (1980) Peak
    UK Singles Chart[11] 1

  4. As soon as you hear it, you know where it's from.

  5. I'm used to the version Stewie sang on Family Guy.

    But yeah, now that you mention it, I think I'll need to pull up the tab sheets and learn this on the acoustic...


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