I suppose if you want a champion of broadcasting decency, a soul star whose biggest hit invited listeners to
suck on my chocolate, salty balls.
(Put ’em in your mouth!)
Put ’em in your mouth and suck ’em . . .
wouldn’t automatically be your first choice.
Isaac Hayes, the wonderfully gifted singer who sang the theme from Shaft, reached No1 with Chocolate Salty Balls in 1999. The song was one of a number that Hayes performed while playing the school Chef in the US cartoon series South Park. Among the other Chef tunes, the Christmas song stands out, with its seductive lyrics, which I believe ran:
I’m gonna lay you down by the Yule log
I’m gonna love you right
Baby, I’m gonna deck your halls
And silence your nights
You’ll hear the herald angels sing
When I’m sliding off your bra
I just can’t wait to jingle your bells
and falala your love . . .
But now the soul sinner appears to have repented. Hayes has resigned from South Park claiming that the show was “insensitive to personal religious beliefs”.
He has a point. The writers of South Park have, inter alia, depicted Jesus and Santa Claus fighting a martial arts contest over the true meaning of Christmas, had one of their characters sing “I’m a lonely Jew at Christmas” and given an extra twist to Chef’s lasciviousness by making him a convert to Islam. In an episode first screened in 2000, Chef changes his name from Jerome McElroy to Abdul Mohammed Jabbar-Raof Kareem Ali.
And there’s the rub. Isaac Hayes has been happy to collaborate with the South Park team over the past decade while they merrily subverted, parodied, trashed, mocked and ridiculed a variety of faiths. But now he’s walked after the screening of an episode in which his own “faith”, Scientology, received the full SP treatment.
The episode in question, entitled Trapped in the Closet, features an animated version of the world’s most famous Scientologist, Tom Cruise. And while some of you may be thinking that the most interesting thing about the show would be seeing Tom Cruise animated, a state he certainly hasn’t been in for any of his previous screen appearances, the episode has become controversial for other reasons. It depicts Scientologists as gullible souls, with the cartoon Tom believing that one of the South Park regulars, Stan, is a reincarnation of Scientology’s founding father, L. Ron Hubbard.
The episode was first screened in the US in November but has never been seen in the UK, for legal reasons. And then, last week, hot on the heels of Isaac Hayes’s walkout, the US channel Comedy Central suddenly pulled a repeat of the episode from its schedules.
After the decision to dump the show, the Hollywood newspaper Daily Variety reported rumours that Cruise had made an ultimatum — drop the episode or he would decline to do any interviews or promotions for his forthcoming film Mission Impossible 3. The film is made by Paramount, which is owned by the company that oversees Comedy Central.
Tom Cruise’s people, it must be said, flatly deny the insinuation. But then Cruise need not have said anything for someone to conclude that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to mock his “faith” in this way. Because a lot has changed since the episode was first screened, and I don’t just mean Isaac Hayes hanging up his Chef’s hat.
The whole climate in which religion is discussed has chilled notably in the past few months. After the Danish cartoon controversy, the momentum is with those people who use their particular, narrow faith to silence other voices. If you doubt that’s so, just ask why no British newspaper felt that it could reproduce those cartoons. And reflect on why the British and American governments had to apologise for the offence caused. What were governments doing saying sorry for the independent actions of free citizens? Bending before a very ill wind.
When the House of Commons debated the Religious Hatred Bill, the argument was made that criminalising what one said about faith would have a chilling effect on debate overall. And, even without the law having been passed, one section of our community has succeeded in just that aim.
I’m sure that Trapped in the Closet is wildly offensive. I certainly hope so, anyway. Because the one thing that Scientologists need more than anything else is ridicule. A religion founded by a science-fiction writer in the 1950s which invites its followers to believe in an inter-galactic tyrant called Xenu and offers them the chance to control time itself by becoming “Operating Thetans” deserves nothing less.
Recently in the House of Commons I reminded the House that “Scientology is an evil cult founded by an individual purely in the interests of enriching himself and sustained by those who are either wicked or wayward”.
But perhaps after everything that’s happened in the past week I should just have said that it’s so much transparent, sugary, balls.