Younger generations may not fully comprehend just how massively popular the TV show M*A*S*H was back in the 70s and early 80s. For those of you who are scratching your heads, M*A*S*H aired 11 seasons on CBS between 1972 and 1983. The show was based on the 1970 movie of the same name, although the movie’s title was stylized without the asterisks, simply “MASH”. The title is an acronym that stands for “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”. Both the show and the movie are dark comedies that follow the simultaneously depressing and hilarious lives of a group of army doctors during the Korean War.
The movie was a smash hit for 20th Century Fox, earning $80 million at the box office (equal to $500 million after adjusting for inflation). The movie was nominated for five academy awards including Best Picture. It wound up winning just one, Best Adapted Screenplay. The subsequent TV show was also a smash hit. Whenever a list of the best TV shows of all time is released, M*A*S*H almost always appears in the top five. The show’s final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”, is still the most watched television event OF ALL TIME in the United States. A mind-boggling 120 million people tuned in to watch the final episode on February 28, 1983. That means just slightly over half of the entire US population at the time (233 million people) stopped what they were doing to watch a television show together. By comparison, when Seinfeld ended in 1998, 76 million people tuned in. When Friends ended in 2004, 52 million people tuned in. This most recent Super Bowl between the Broncos and the Seahawks was the most watched Super Bowl of all time with 111 million total viewers.
So you get it. The show was humongous. And even if you’ve never seen a single episode of the TV show or the movie, there’s a good chance you’ll recognize the haunting theme song that they both share. The theme’s technical title is “Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)”, but today it is mostly referred to just as “Suicide Is Painless“. And while you may assume it was written by a veteran songwriter with dozens of hits and decades of experience under his belt, the real story is much more interesting and unbelievable… First take a listen to the song and pay close attention to the lyrics:
Our story starts out in the late 1960s during production of the movie version of MASH. The film’s director Robert Altman reached out to a composer named Johnny Mandel to write a special song that was to accompany a scene that would later be referred to as “The Last Supper”. In it, one of the main characters had recently experienced an embarrassing intimate performance issue with a girl. He is so embarrassed that he wants to commit suicide. So his comrades stage a farewell Last Supper dinner while the embarrassed lover pretends to commit suicide by taking a “cyanide pill” (actually a sleeping pill). As he slips into his fake death, a comrade sings a haunting song with a guitar accompanist. That song was “Suicide is Painless“.
When the director Robert Altman hired Johnny Mandel to compose the song, he gave two stipulations: #1) The song had to be called “Suicide is Painless”. And #2) It needed to be the “stupidest song ever written“. Mandel, a classically trained composer who had worked with dozens of major artists like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Count Basie, conjured a gentle guitar part and a mournful melody. Unfortunately Johnny drew a blank when it came time for the lyrics. His writer’s block was so bad that he had to ask Altman for help.
Altman tried to compose the accompanying lyrics himself, but he also came up short. Altman quickly realized that neither he nor Mandel were immature enough to write something silly, snarky or downright dumb enough to make the satirical scene work. Where, he wondered, could he find someone in the throes of adolescence? Someone who lacked the pretensions of age. Someone who could cook up something adequately juvenile???
Fortunately, Altman didn’t have to look too far. His fourteen year old son Michael Altman fit the bill just fine. Robert gave the teenager the challenge. The younger Altman seized his opportunity and amazingly ended up taking just five minutes to write the final lyrics that became “Suicide is Painless” as we know it today. As you can tell when you listen to the final version, Mike found the perfect cornucopia of corny couplets that would have felt right at home in a Monty Python film: “The sword of time will pierce our skins / it doesn’t hurt when it begins,” he penned. “But as it works its way on in / the pain grows stronger…watch it grin.”
So a 14 year old wrote a silly song, big deal right??? Well, it probably wasn’t a big deal at first. Mike was paid a modest onetime fee for his work when MASH was just a movie. But when it became a TV show, the equation changed completely. Not only are the royalty payouts much more favorable to TV theme writers, as we mentioned previously M*A*S*H was smash hit on the TV airwaves for over a decade. Every time the show aired back then, and every time it airs to this day, Mike Altman earned a hefty royalty. Suicide is Painless, was also hit #1 on the UK Singles chart in 1980. It has since been covered by a myriad of artists including the Manic Street Preachers, Bill Evans and Royal Trux.
By the way, if you want to learn more about the amazing world of TV theme song royalties, check out our interview with Gary Portnoy, the writer of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from the TV show “Cheers“. Gary gave us an absolutely amazing interview that we still think is one of our best articles of all time. Oh and in case you were curious, the Cheers finale is the third most watched TV show event in American history, drawing 84 million viewers. The top five are: #1. M*A*S*H (120 million), #2. Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 (111 million), #3. Cheers (84 million), #4. Seinfeld (76 million), #5. Friends (52 million).
How did all this work out for young Mikey Altman? Well, in a 1981 interview on the Johnny Carson show, his father Robert Altman told this exact tale of how the now-famous song came to be. Robert explained that as the movie’s director, he was paid a fee of $70,000, roughly $200,000 after adjusting for inflation. Not bad, but absolute chicken scratch compared to how his son ended up making out thanks to the TV show. Robert told Johnny that up until that point in 1981 alone, his son had already raked in over $1 million in royalties for writing the show’s theme song. That’s equal to roughly $3 million today after adjusting for inflation. And that does not include however much Mike earned in royalties between 1981 and today! In total, it’s very likely that the younger Altman earned the equivalent of $5-8 million dollars for his lyrical contribution. Not a bad little payday for five minutes of work back when he was 14!