NEW YORK – Nothing like a little controversy to cook up a big audience. Last week's spat that pitted "South Park" against Scientology and Isaac Hayes, with a rumored dollop of Tom Cruise stirred in, led Wednesday night to the animated series' highest-rated season premiere since 2002, according to a Comedy Central spokesman.
An estimated 3.5 million viewers — including 2.3 million in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 age bracket — tuned in to watch the show unleash a new salvo against Scientology.
In the episode, the first of the series' 10th season, Isaac Hayes' Chef character was brainwashed by the "Super Adventure Club" and then apparently killed off.
Hayes, a soul singer best known for composing the Oscar-winning theme to the movie "Shaft," has voiced Chef since 1997. The outspoken Scientologist quit the show last week, saying he could no longer tolerate its religious "intolerance and bigotry."
Series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker immediately blasted back, saying Hayes left because he couldn't stomach an episode from last November that mocked Scientology and its celebrity followers, including Tom Cruise. A rerun of that episode, called "Trapped in the Closet," was then yanked off the air without notice last week, resulting in rumors that Cruise made demands to pull it. The actor's spokesman denied it. Stone and Parker said there would be retribution.
Without Hayes' participation, they cobbled together clips of his character for Wednesday's episode, in which the "Super Adventure Club" that Chef joins turns its brainwashed members into child molesters. "South Park's" impish grade-schoolers try to save him, but he is burned, stabbed and mauled by a mountain lion and bear. They try to revive him, and it's not clear if they succeed.
"We shouldn't be mad at Chef for leaving us," says one of the children. "We should be mad at that fruity little club for scrambling his brains."