“Suicide is Painless”? Now there’s a song title for a love song, huh? But of course songs such as “Barrytown,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Cows with Guns,” “Yellow Ribbon,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “House of the Rising Son,” “Fishin’ Blues,” “The Entertainer” and “Gonna Be an Engineer” wouldn’t be considered love songs by most people. They just happen to mean something to us — or more accurately, to me, in relation to my marriage.
I suspect that few people know the words to “Suicide is Painless” — though at one time most Americans probably would have recognized the melody from “M*A*S*H,” perhaps the best television show of all time. Before that, “M*A*S*H” was a novel and then a Robert Altman film. (Altman’s teenage son reportedly wrote the lyrics for Oscar-winner Johnny Mandel’s song in less than five minutes.) I wasn’t a big fan of the film, but the show evolved into a television masterpiece that brought love, humor, pathos and human stupidity to millions of Americans on a weekly basis in the 1970s.
“M*A*S*H,” set in the Korean War but about the Vietnam War, was the first show that Joanna and I regularly watched together. The final episode came two years after we were married; we watched it at a viewing party with a group of now-forgotten friends. At that time, the episode was the most-watched show in history. More Americans watched it than saw that year’s Super Bowl.
The show also became more meaningful to us because we appreciated the fact that star Alan Alda was an early male feminist who gave us one of Joanna’s favorite expressions for why I do some of the things I do: “testosterone poisoning.” Co-star Mike Farrell was a political activist (and a nice guy in person, as we found out when we met him at a party in Moscow, Idaho), and the activities of Alda and Farrell make up for the fact that the guy Farrell replaced on the show, Wayne Rogers, turned out to be a Fox News idiot (and perhaps another “family-values” hypocrite).
“Suicide is painless” has been covered by various artists, including Marilyn Manson, the Manic Street Preachers and Lady & Bird (my favorite version). The show offered different versions over the years, some with lyrics, but the instrumental version below has probably been heard by the most people. The video includes stills from the TV show: