Tuned In

South Park Serves Up Chef

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Is Scientology a legitimate religion? Who can say? Was L. Ron Hubbard a con artist? I have no opinion (that I’m willing to share in the light of my financial ability to mount a legal defense). But one thing is clear: there must be a God. For only a benevolent divine presence could have led Isaac Hayes and the church of Scientology to offer up, on the eve of South Park’s 10th season, a perfect tee-up for animation’s masters of short-order satire.

A little refresher: Hayes, who for years played the wise and randy school cafeteria cook, Chef, announced abruptly that he was leaving the show because of its insensitivity to religion. This was odd, considering that the show mocked Catholics and Mormons for years without Hayes raising a peep. But late last season, South Park did a scathing episode mocking Scientology and its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise–and Hayes is a Scientologist. Later, Comedy Central canceled a rerun of that episode, under pressure, it was widely suspected, not to tick off Cruise, who is starring in Mission: Impossible 3 for another unit of Comedy Central’s owner, Viacom.

South Park auteurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone no longer had Hayes’ services. But they still had his voice–years’ worth of audio he recorded for them. Last night, they put the tapes to cruelly brilliant use. In "The Return of Chef!," Chef has come back to the small town of South Park, Colo., after a stint wandering the world with a group called the Super Adventure Club. But the kids at the center of the show soon notice something weird about him: he’s sexually propositioning them, his lines obviously and crudely stitched together from previous recordings. ("Come on, children! You’re my… sexual fantasy! Let’s all make… swee-eet love!" goes one of the more reprintable ones.)

At first it seems like simply a funny but mean-spirited payback against Hayes, but the episode has a bigger target. Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny soon discover that Chef was hypnotized by the SAC into wanting to molest children. "The reason Chef has been saying those terrible things about us is that he’s been brainwashed by his fruity little club!" Kyle says. ("Worst case I’ve ever seen," says a psychiatrist, shining a flashlight in Chef’s ear.)

The fruity little club, it turns out, has a fruity little story of its own. Its leader tells the kids the story of its legendary founder, who believed–through a mix of spirituality and science fiction that I want to make clear to everyone’s lawyers was Parker and Stone’s analogy, not mine–that having sex with children made him immortal. When the kids say the idea is "retarded," the group leader snaps, "Is it any more retarded than the idea of God sending his son to die for our sins? Is it any more retarded than Buddha sitting beneath a tree for 20 years?"

"Yeah," says Stan. "It’s way, way more retarded."

The parody is funny enough, although Parker and Stone did a more thorough and detailed job on Scientology last year. But as a send-off to Hayes, the end of the episode is both vitriolic and strangely sweet. Chef is burnt to a crisp and horribly disfigured, only to be resurrected, Darth Vader-style, by the SAC. But the money shot comes when the kids–who briefly deprogrammed Chef by taking him to a strip club–beg him to leave the club and come back to them. "Don’t forget all your training, Chef!" the leader shouts. "Stay with us and your life will be grand and eternal!"

"Chef," Stan pleads, "We love you."

Call me a softie, but for all the chocolate-salty-balls jokes, I think that was the message of the episode right there. Of course, Chef walks away anyway, and gets the animated immolation he had coming to him. He should have remembered to bring his voice recordings with him.