At some point, I’m going to write an essay on Robert Altman’s classic 1970 film “M*A*S*H” and how much this movie has meant to me over the years. It’s a film that seems even more shocking and subversive these days than it did when it first came out over 40 years ago. But the story behind the theme song “Suicide is Painless” is so damn interesting, it demands its own essay. Most people know the melody, as it played over the opening and closing credits of the TV show. But for those people who don’t know that the movie exists are usually genuinely shocked to hear that the theme actually has lyrics. Marilyn Manson once said that this is the most depressing song ever written. The lyrics are pretty despairing … but director Robert Altman would’ve probably said “Are you f–king kidding me?!?” to such sentiments.
The following story below is a summary of several anecdotes related in the positively amazing oral history / biography of director Robert Altman “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” by Mitchell Zuckoff. (What?!? You don’t have a copy of this amazing book ?!?)
The impetus for writing the song came from a scene in the middle of the film where a dentist character, a legendary cocksman of the medical unit, finds himself impotent when he hooks up with a woman and concludes that he’s gay. As a result, he wants to commit suicide. His friends think this is utterly ridiculous and treat the dentist’s desire to kill himself with absurd humor. They hold a “last supper” that’s framed in the same way as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting. Altman thought there was too much “dead air” in the scene and that it needed a song. Per Altman, “It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written.” The composer, Johnny Mandel, said “Well, we can do stupid.” Altman said “There’s too much stuff in this 45-year old brain of mine. I can’t get anything nearly as stupid as I need. But all is not lost. I have this kid who is a total idiot. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts.” Altman’s son Michael (who was reportedly 14 years old at the time) was asked by his father to write the lyrics and he wrote the lyrics in approximately 10 minutes. Altman’s son wrote some chords … Mandel added some others … and the song was a done deal.
For Michael’s trouble, he was paid $500 and 50% of the song. A few years after the movie came out, the TV series “M*A*S*H” came out and he got a check for $26. Then he received a second check for $130. And then the show went into syndication and Michael received a check for $26,000. And after all was said and done, Michael earned $2 million over the years for writing an allegedly really stupid song in just 10 minutes. To put this into perspective, his father Robert only received $75,000 for directing the movie … with no royalties or profits. Keep in mind that the movie “M*A*S*H” is considered one of the greatest film comedies ever made, was ranked #54 in the American Film Institute’s poll of the greatest American films ever made, was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry,won the Palme D’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and grossed the equivalent of $475 million in 2013 dollars.
Michael admitted that he squandered most of the money, failed to pay taxes because he was young and not money savvy, and then got into a lot of trouble with the IRS. Eventually, Michael had to declare bankruptcy and his father Robert bought the song for $30,000. So his father (and his estate) wound up with future royalties after the fact.
After several years, Michael admitted that he blames himself entirely for what happened and while that he’s written other songs, no others have been recorded or released. He advised by his standards, he never liked the song or was that impressed with it.