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Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"South Park": Will tonight be Chef's final fling?

New York Daily News

Contrary to popular assumption, "South Park" fans have not seen the Chef sling his final serving of hash.

The character, who until last week was voiced by Isaac Hayes, is back tonight in the first of several new episodes of Comedy Central's top-rated show.

The episode, "The Return of Chef," has the school-cafeteria cook returning after a hiatus to the bucolic town that Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman call home.

According to a brief description released by the network, the gang is happy "to have their old friend back, [but] 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."

Work on the episode began last week, after news broke of Hayes' decision to quit the show because it skewered the Church of Scientology, of which he's a member.

"There is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry toward religious beliefs and others begins," Hayes, 63, said.

A Comedy Central spokesman would not confirm or deny that Chef's voice in tonight's episode is provided by Hayes, but he did reiterate that Hayes is no longer involved with the show. However, it would not be difficult to weave together existing dialogue from Hayes. And it is not unusual for creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to deliver episodes at the last minute.

On TV

"South Park," 10 tonight, Comedy Central

It's unclear whether tonight's episode involves Scientology.

But Parker and Stone's penchant for topical sacred-cow-bashing is well-known. So it would not be a stretch to assume that "Chef Returns" is the latest salvo in the battle between "South Park" and the religion that counts Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its devotees.

Rumors swirled late last week that last Wednesday's scheduled rerun of "South Park," which caricatured Cruise and Travolta and had Stan being crowned the new savior by Scientology leaders, was pulled because of threats from Cruise. The network said the episode was yanked to make room for two Chef-centric episodes.

Parker and Stone are obviously enjoying the controversy.

"So, Scientology, you may have won this battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun," the duo said in a statement on the yanked episode. "Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail!"

The spokesman said it's "undetermined" if Chef will remain a character in the series.

Tonight's episode is the first of seven new half-hours of "South Park." The remaining six start in October.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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