Suicide is Painless is a song written by Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman, the 15-year-old son of Robert Altman. It became famous as the theme song of the 1970 MASH movie and, in the instrumental form, as the theme music for the M*A*S*H TV series.
It was originally composed by Johnny Mandel at the behest of MASH movie director Robert Altman for the fake suicide scene. Altman had specified that the song has to be called "Suicide is Painless" because the scene was about Captain Waldowski, the "Painless Pole" attempting to commit suicide. Second, Altman specified that the song must be "the stupidest song ever written." Mandel proceeded to write the song but found, after two days, that with some much in his brain at age 45, he couldn't write anything quite as stupid as was needed. So Robert Altman asked his 15-year-old son Michael to write the lyrics, which he did in a few minutes. Mandel then composed the music to it.
The song was originally intended as music for the fake suicide scene of the camp dentist "Painless Pole" Waldowski, to be sung by Private Seidman (Ken Prymus) accompanied by Captain Bandini (Corey Fisher) on the guitar. This fake suicide scene was also the first scene in the movie to be shot.
However Robert Altman liked the song so much that he decided to use the song for the opening credits of the movie as well. This version was sung by uncredited singers John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin and Ian Freebairn-Smith. Mandel didn't like the idea. He felt the lyrics just didn't fit a scene with helicopters flying in wounded to a hospital. When he first saw it during a screening, he was so upset that he left the room. However Altman went ahead with using the song anyway.
Following the success of the movie, the song was also released by Columbia/CBS as a single in 1970, ultimately reaching No. 1 in the UK hit charts in 1980.
Due to the nature of the lyrics, the producers couldn't use the original version for the M*A*S*H TV series. Instrumental versions of the song was used for the opening sequence and closing credits instead. In the early seasons this was a soft guitar version. In later seasons, various arrangements were tried, including one with a jazzier beat and another, brighter, one with brass instruments.
In 2004, the American Film Institute released its AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs, a list of the top 100 songs in the last 100 years of American cinema. "Suicide is Painless" was placed at #66 of out 100.