Oh my God! They killed Chef!

Arts writers live for those moments when we can blow off the barrage of voice mails from PR flacks in order to watch South Park on YouTube because it’s actually, you know, newsworthy. A couple of weeks ago, we started getting e-mails from friends about Tom Cruise bullying Comedy Central into yanking the South Park rerun that ripped on Scientology. (Reportedly, Cruise threatened not to promote Mission Impossible 3, which is the property of Comedy Central owner Viacom, if the show aired—so it didn’t.) Immediately, with help from the trusty Internet, we tracked the episode down. Hearty laughs ensued.

At just about the same time—go figure—we got the press release about hot buttered soul maestro Isaac Hayes, also a Scientologist, having quit his role on South Park. In its finer moments, Hayes’ turn as the tomcat cafeteria cook Chef—on a showcase of crude, cut-out animation and crass, sacred-cow-tipping lampoonery—made for boffo pop-culture pastiche of the highest order. What a shock and a disappointment that suddenly he was done with it.

“Religious beliefs are sacred to people and at all times should be respected and honored,” Hayes said in a statement, apparently just then having realized which show he’d been on for the past decade. As South Park co-creator Matt Stone huffed in response, “He has no problem—and he’s cashed plenty of checks—with our show making fun of Christians.” Later, anger eased into bafflement; it was suggested that since Hayes’ January stroke and subsequent seclusion, his public statements haven’t been his own. Stone and co-creator Trey Parker regretfully released Hayes from his contract. And they blamed the Scientologists.

Last Wednesday, South Park ’s 10th season began with “The Return of Chef,” and from the first moments, we knew it would be a bittersweet sendoff. With a laughably obvious patchwork of previously recorded dialogue, the show presented a plainly out-of-sorts Chef, brainwashed by the diabolical influence of a “Super Adventure Club” to want to make sweet, sweet love to all the kids in South Park. As it turns out, this club’s members travel the world molesting children; its sufficiently L. Ron Hubbard-esque founder was, as one member puts it, “the first explorer to bugger all the underage mountain-folk of Nepal.”

Organized pedophilia as signifier of predatory quasi-religious propaganda? Seems like standard South Park. What surprised us about this episode, though, was how touching it was—how truly it spoke to the real pain and absurdity of a broken friendship.

The kids try to rehabilitate their pal, and Stan even tells him, “Chef, we love you,” but in the end it’s not enough against the power of the pederasts. Worse, the tug-of-war for Chef’s allegiance sends him to a gruesome and unfortunate end. Although a clever touch leaves open the prospect that this saga may continue, it’ll surely go down as one of the great, poignant TV deaths. And it reminds us that we’d rather have Stone and Parker as our badly behaved friends than the Church of Scientology any day.