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Everyone's in a Stew Over 'South Park' Chef

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, March 18, 2006

Comedy Central, the allegedly irreverent, testosterone-fueled, take-no-prisoners basic cable network, looks more like a Vertical Integration Sissy Girl after yanking an episode of "South Park" that lampoons Scientology and Tom Cruise.

The cave-in occurred this week, just a couple of days after Isaac Hayes, who has provided the voice of Chef for the edgy animated series since 1997, asked to be let out of his contract because he had just noticed that the cartoon, about four precocious potty-mouthed fourth-graders in South Park, Colo., makes fun of religious groups.

Hayes, who is a Scientologist, said it's part of what he sees as a "growing insensitivity toward personal spiritual beliefs" in the media.

"Religious beliefs are sacred to people and at all times should be respected and honored," the R&B musician and actor said Monday, according to news reports.

"As a civil rights activist of the past 40 years, I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices."

Series co-creator Matt Stone understandably wondered why it took Hayes nearly a full decade to figure out that "South Park" pokes fun at, among other things, religions.

"This is 100 percent having to do with his faith of Scientology," Stone said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Stone noted in interviews that "in 10 years and over 150 episodes of 'South Park,' Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslims, Mormons or Jews," and added, "He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show."

Even more mysterious, Hayes did not quit the show when Comedy Central first ran the episode, called "Trapped in the Closet," last November.

In the episode, fourth-grader Stan scores so high on a Scientology test that followers decide he is the reincarnation of its founder, sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard.

Scientologists show up at Stan's house in droves. Stan finds celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise in his bedroom; Cruise asks Stan what he thinks of Cruise's acting work. Stan pronounces him not as good as Leonardo DiCaprio, Gene Hackman or "that guy who played Napoleon Dynamite." Cruise, crushed, hides in Stan's closet. John Travolta, another celeb Scientologist, and R&B artist R. Kelly each try to get Cruise to come out of the closet. For the rest of the episode, "Tom Cruise" and "come out of the closet" are said in the same sentence. Like 39 times.

(Back in November, a rep for Hayes said her client hadn't heard about the story line and she did not think his character was in it, according to a report on the Web site of Mort Zuckerman's now defunct political, pop culture and style magazine, Radar. The site also has Cruise's rep saying they had "no knowledge of" the episode.)

So Hayes very publicly quits "South Park" on Monday, the media gloms on to this story and hangs on for dear life for a couple of days.

CNN's "Showbiz Tonight" files a report noting that in a recent interview on their very own show, Hayes said he had no beef with the Scientology episode. "I didn't see it but I was told about it. But they lampoon everybody and if you believe them, you got a problem," Hayes says in a clip.

Stone and co-creator Trey Parker go on David Letterman's CBS late-night show and joke that Hayes's character hasn't been a large part of the show for about five years anyway, and when they did the show about Scientology, "we were like, boy, Isaac might quit over this, and sure enough he did."

And by Wednesday, about 100 times as many people know that the "Trapped in the Closet" episode is going to run on Comedy Central that night.

Only when people tune in, the episode isn't there. Instead it's another episode, called "Chef's Salty Chocolate Balls," and an additional episode also prominently featuring Hayes's advice-dispensing school cook character.

Called for comment the next day, Comedy Central, a division of Viacom, issued a statement explaining that the "Trapped in the Closet" episode was yanked because "in light of the events of earlier this week, we wanted to give Chef an appropriate tribute by airing two episodes he is most known for."

Really, they did. And not in some neoironic way. They were being serious.

And all this is going on while Tom Cruise is busy promoting his upcoming "Mission: Impossible III," which hits theaters on May 5, for Paramount, another division of Viacom.

I'm just sayin'.

Cruise's publicist yesterday said, "Tom had nothing to do with this matter. He's been promoting 'Mission: Impossible III' for the last six months. We have no clue where this came from."

Stone and Parker obviously have their theory about the abrupt episode switcheroo:

"So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun!" the two said in a statement sent to trade paper Variety.

"Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!"

They signed the statement, "Trey Parker and Matt Stone, servants of the dark lord Xenu."

In November, when the episode was first scheduled to run on Comedy Central, network spokesman Tony Fox was asked by Radar whether taking swipes at Cruise and Scientology was smart. Fox responded that the network has Stone and Parker's back.

"If you know 'South Park,' they are free, and have been, to satirize anybody and anything they want to. They've made fun of MTV, they've made fun of Viacom, they've made fun of Comedy Central, and we've never interfered with them."

Oh, well.

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