It's been an interesting two weeks for everyone involved with "South Park."
On March 13, Isaac Hayes — who had provided the hot-buttered baritone of Chef, the show's resident loverman since its 1997 premiere — announced that he wanted out of his contract with the program, citing its "growing insensitivity towards personal spiritual beliefs."
"South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker dismissed Hayes' claim as having little to do with insensitivity and everything to do with the legendary soul singer's association with Scientology, the religion that the show parodied last year in an episode called "Trapped in the Closet" (see "Isaac Hayes Wants Out Of 'South Park' Due To Religious Jokes").
Coincidentally, the "Trapped" episode was scheduled to re-air on March 15, but at the last minute Comedy Central pulled the episode, replacing it with another Chef-heavy (and controversial) ep, "Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls." The move sent "South Park" message boards ablaze with reports that Tom Cruise — himself a Scientologist and a target of mockery in the "Closet" episode — had leaned on Paramount Pictures (the studio owned by Viacom, which also owns Comedy Central and MTV and has the Cruise-starring "Mission: Impossible III" coming out this spring) to have the episode yanked from broadcast.
Despite a spokesperson for Cruise denying the reports, Stone and Parker saw it as a personal affront to their show, and pledged to keep their struggle against Scientology alive. They also announced plans to prominently feature Chef in the season 10 premiere of "South Park," using snippets of dialogue Hayes had recorded over the years (see " 'South Park' Cooks Up Plan For Chef In Season Premiere".)
Adding another wrinkle to the situation, on Monday FoxNews.com reported that Hayes had no intention of quitting "South Park," but someone had quit in his name. The report, which cited various "sources," claimed that Hayes was unable to quit the show because he was recovering from a stroke he had suffered on January 17, and stated that "it's ... ridiculous to think Hayes ... would suddenly turn against the show because they were poking fun at Scientology."
Amy Harnell, a spokesperson for Hayes, told MTV News the Fox News report was "definitely not true" and that Hayes' decision to quit was "his and his alone." She added that Hayes was never hospitalized with a stroke, but rather "spent a few days in a hospital because of a high blood-pressure condition with medical complications."
As the story became more and more bizarre, media around the world began to run with it, and when "The Return of Chef!" premiered on Wednesday, more than 3.5 million viewers tuned in to watch — the largest season-premiere audience for "South Park" since 2002.
The episode saw Chef return to the town of South Park, Colorado, after being brainwashed by an organization of child molesters called the "Super Adventure Club." Concerned, Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny take Chef to see a psychiatrist — a move frowned upon by Scientologists — though it is just one twist in a series of events that end with Chef suffering a horrible series of accidents, including being shot, struck by lightning, impaled and being eaten by a grizzly bear.
And while it's not totally clear if Chef is really dead (at the end of the episode, he's seen being resurrected, Darth-Vader style), Hayes' spokesperson wants it to be known that the musician is "100-percent" finished with "South Park."
"He's finished talking about it. Basically, his feeling is, if [Stone and Parker] felt the need to do episodes like this one, then that's fine," Harnell said. "He's done with it, and he's already turning his attention to a series of upcoming commercial projects."