‘South Park’: Why Was Chef Killed Off, and How Did He Die?
South Park has been on the air for over two decades. And it’s hard to think of someone the show hasn’t angered along the way. The edgy sitcom uses its wholesome-looking animation to push boundaries that even premium cable often will not touch. As such, the subject matter roils some critics.
However, one of the show’s most famous episodes might not be what it seemed. Isaac Hayes, the soul singer behind the beloved South Park character Chef, left the show in 2006. But the story of why has been disputed.
‘South Park’ shocks and delights
South Park premiered on Comedy Central in 1997 and immediately became the network’s biggest hit, IMDb reports. The series took the popular adult animation formula revolutionized by The Simpsons to cable, where almost anything goes. The result was a show lauded for its willingness to push the envelope yet reviled for the same reason.
For the pilot episode of South Park, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker used cardboard and stop motion. However, they soon switched to a computer program that let them make the animated episodes within days of their writing.
And within two years, the show had a hit R-rated movie, an entire nation buying its merchandise, and a status as one of the edgiest shows on television.
South Park takes the timeliness of Saturday Night Live and runs with it. In pushing boundaries, however, the show has angered everyone from politicians to celebrities. But its biggest enemy may have been the Church of Scientology.
Getting into the the soul of ‘South Park’: Chef
Chef was the school cook, who often serenaded the children with catchy, often-inappropriate songs in Isaac Hayes’ signature baritone rasps. The singer had made waves throughout the ’70s thanks to his work on the Shaft soundtrack and his importance to the era’s soul scene. So including him as a smooth-talking cafeteria worker on South Park was too good for Stone and Parker to pass up.
However, just because they had him on board didn’t mean he was always on board with the plotlines. In a 2016 interview with the Independent, the two creators broke down an episode and the role they believed it played in Hayes’ later departure. Discussing the episode — which poked fun at Scientology, Tom Cruise, R. Kelly, and the culture of the time — Stone and Parker explained how they navigated the taboo subject matter.
“When we did the Scientology episode, [Isaac Hayes, who was a Scientologist] came over, and I sat with him,” Stone said. “It was like a day or two after, and it was pretty obvious from the conversation that somebody had sent him to ask us to pull the episode. It had already gone on the air, and we didn’t tell him because we didn’t want him to be held accountable. Plausible deniability.”
A longstanding rumor says Hayes took issue with the episode and quit via a statement. Thus, the creators were forced to piece together a fitting, bizarre sendoff. However, Hayes’ family tells a different story.
Setting the record straight
Hayes’ son, Isaac Hayes III, was present during the interview with the Independent. He said his father’s decision to quit was not his own, as a statement had suggested.
“He was in no position to resign under his own knowledge. At the time, everybody around my father was involved in Scientology — his assistants, the core group of people. So someone quit South Park on Isaac Hayes’ behalf,” his son told the Independent. “We don’t know who. My father was not that big of a hypocrite to be part of a show that would constantly poke fun at African-American people, Jewish people, gay people — and only quit when it comes to Scientology.”
Upon Hayes’ departure, South Park gave Chef a fittingly over-the-top sendoff. In the Season 10 debut, he was brainwashed by a cult of child molesters, burned, shot, stabbed, beaten, and maimed beyond recognition. Then a bear and a mountain lion tore him apart, South Park fandom notes. His demise was made even more comically meta by Kyle’s eulogy, stating they couldn’t blame Chef for his brainwashing.
Whether Hayes’ health played a factor in his departure or the Church of Scientology went behind his back to remove him from the show, South Park knows how to offend people and shows no signs of stopping. The entire ordeal is a fascinating insight into how the series has worked.
However, it also shows how Matt Stone and Trey Parker have succeeded without making the cast and crew compromise their own beliefs. Perhaps this is why South Park is still going strong nearly a quarter-century after its premiere.