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Posted: 3/21/2006 7:28:35 AM EDT

Updated: 09:59 AM EST
'South Park' Chef Back After Scientology Skirmish

By Steve Gorman, Reuters

LOS ANGELES (March 21) - 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 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 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," the network said.

"South Park," launched in 1997, remains the highest-rated series on Comedy Central, which like Paramount, is owned by Viacom Inc.



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