Animated Discussions
by Rudy Panucci and Melanie Larch

It was the clash that was destined to happen. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the iconoclasts who create Comedy Central’s South Park, finally turned their sights towards Scientology, the controversial and vengeful religion invented by hack sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. The only surprise was that it took them so long. And that wasn’t really a surprise, since Isaac Hayes, the legendary soul musician who voiced the character “Chef” on the show, is a devout and vocal Scientologist. For the previous eight seasons, Parker and Stone skewered just about every religion on the planet–Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Bush Supporters–they all felt the stinging satirical bite of the South Park crew. Scientology was spared….until last November.

With the episode “Trapped In The Closet,” South Park unleashed eight years of pent up Scientology jokes. From jabs at the “top secret” goofball mythology behind their beliefs, to the Church’s obsession with recruiting celebrities, to the rumors about how they allow those celebrities to cover up certain unpopular orientations, this episode of South Park tore into Scientology with ham-handed fists a blazin’. The next day, newsgroups and message boards were filled with speculation about the reaction from the Church. Would Isaac Hayes quit the show in protest? Would Church of Scientology hit squads take out Parker and Stone? Would lawsuits be filed?

Nothing happened.

At least not until last week. Four months after the episode aired, details started to trickle out. A Rolling Stone article on Scientology said that Comedy Central had agreed not to air the episode at all in the UK, and would not repeat it in America. Then Isaac Hayes announced that he wanted out of his contract to provide the voice of Chef. The timing was a little too perfect. Contrary to what Rolling Stone had reported, the “Trapped In The Closet” episode was scheduled to run again on March 15. And the new season of South Park is scheduled to begin one week later.

Why did Isaac Hayes wait four months after the offending show aired, until right before the start of the new season, to announce that he was quitting? Wouldn’t that just call more attention to the show? And why, after scheduling “Trapped In The Closet” and promoting that it would be aired again, contrary to the Rolling Stone article, did Comedy Central pull it at the last minute and replace it with another episode?

The Isaac Hayes situation is rumored to be a case where he didn’t really want to quit the lucrative show, but was pressured to by officials at the Church of Scientology. It evidently took a few months for them to convince him that it was in his best interests to leave South Park. The fact that the news broke just in time to raise South Park’s profile just in time for their new season appears to be a coincidence.

But the reason that Comedy Central pulled the repeat of “Trapped In The Closet” is more a case of corporate synergy gone horribly wrong. According to the Hollywood Interrupted Blog, Tom Cruise (shown right, as drawn by John K), the world’s most famous Scientologist, and the butt of most of the jokes in the South Park episode, threatened to cancel all his publicity appearances for the upcoming Paramount film Mission Impossible 3 if Comedy Central aired “Trapped In The Closet” again. Comedy Central and Paramount are both subsidiaries of Viacom.

So what does this mean for fans of South Park? The show has several options for dealing with the exit of Isaac Hayes. They could simply not write the character, Chef, into any more episodes. He’s only been in a few shows for the past several seasons. They could also kill the character off, or recast his voice. They even have the option of re-using the voice tracks from previous shows for short appearances.

Is this a one-time occurrence of censorship, or has the show hit a point, in it’s tenth year, that Comedy Central feels they can finally tighten the reigns and make the show conform to their standards and practices? The new season will tell the story. We’re guessing that at least one episode in the batch that starts next week will make light of this situation. However, it’s the next season that begins in August, after the Mission Impossible movie has come and gone in theaters, where we’ll really get to see how Parker and Stone will react to this whole mess.

We can’t wait.

Update: Parker and Stone have refused to comment on Comedy Central pulling the “Trapped In A Closet” Episode last Wednesday, but they did release the following statement to Daily Variety:

“So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun! 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!!!”

The Statement was signed, “Trey Parker and Matt Stone, servants of the dark lord Xenu.”