March 20, 2006

“South Park” Chef back after Scientology skirmish

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Soul singer Isaac Hayes may have
quit his job as the voice of Chef on "South Park" after a
disagreement over religion, but his character will live on when
the satiric cable TV cartoon returns to Comedy Central this
week, the network said on Monday.

Hayes and his "South Park" alter ego are at the center of
an ongoing flap over an episode last November that poked fun at
the Church of Scientology and its celebrity adherents,
including actor Tom Cruise.

The tenth season of "South Park" will launch on Wednesday
with a new episode titled "The Return of Chef!," marking the
"triumphant homecoming" of lusty school cafeteria cook James
"Chef" McElroy to the show, the network said in a statement.

Hayes, 63, himself a follower of Scientology, surprised
producers a week ago by announcing he was leaving the series
because he objected to its "inappropriate ridicule" of
religion, though he made no reference to the show's spoof of
Scientology last fall.

Two days later, Comedy Central abruptly pulled a scheduled
repeat of that episode, titled "Trapped in the Closet." Sources
close to the show said the rerun was canceled after Cruise
threatened to boycott promotion of his upcoming film, "Mission:
Impossible III," for sister studio Paramount Pictures.

Representatives for Cruise and the studio denied this. But
"South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone fed the furor
by issuing a statement suggesting the Church of Scientology was
behind the decision to scrap the rerun.

The network has also noted that various religions including
Christianity, Judaism and Islam have been targets of the show's
satire since its inception.

The network statement announcing Chef's return for the
"South Park" season premiere this Wednesday was a clear sign
that Parker and Stone planned to use the Hayes imbroglio as
further grist for their comedy.

"Knowing these guys as I do, I can't imagine that they're
not going to do just that," Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox
told Reuters. He added that the producers routinely "turn
around" new episodes in just six days, leaving them ample time
to incorporate last week's dust-up into their season debut.

Fox said he assumed someone besides Hayes would supply
Chef's voice. Details of the new episode were vague.

But a network synopsis said the fictional town of South
Park, Colorado, is "jolted out of a case of the doldrums when
Chef suddenly reappears," leading to new antics by the group of
foul-mouthed fourth graders who are the show's stars.

"While Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman are thrilled to have
their old friend back, they notice that something about Chef
seems different. When Chef's strange behavior starts getting
him in trouble, the boys pull out all the stops to save him."

Both Comedy Central and Paramount are owned by Viacom Inc..