Cooking With Isaac
"South Park" rustles up a Chef Aid soundtrack
By Matt Ashare
DECEMBER 7, 1998: Back in October, I stopped by the Topsfield Fair, where my wife and I snacked on corn dogs, marveled at the miniature horses, and gladly paid 50 cents to get a glimpse of a giant pig -- the sort of thing people have been doing at county fairs across the country for decades. Not even the carnival games -- the ski-ball arcades, balloon-popping dart boards, and fishing ponds filled with floating plastic ducks -- had changed much since I was a kid. But anyone seeking reassurance that it was indeed 1998 wouldn't have had to look any farther than the prizes hanging from the walls and ceilings of every booth. There was big, fat Eric Cartman with his blue beanie, round head, and saucer eyes; the somewhat slimmer Stan Marsh, with his blue ski cap, round head, and saucer eyes; Kyle Broslofskyi with his green rabbit-eared hat, round head, and saucer eyes; and, of course, Kenny McCormic, with, yes, the very same round head and saucer eyes peeking through a tiny opening in the overly snug hooded parka that is Kenny's trademark. Oh, and let's not forget the delightful Mr. Hankey, the animated Christmas-cap-wearing bowel movement who brought new meaning to the term "yule log" when he debuted last Thanksgiving in episode #9 of South Park, drawing a landmark estimated audience of 4.5 million viewers to the Comedy Central cable network for a half-hour holiday send-up irreverent enough to make even the Grinch flinch.
Stuffed Kyles and Kennys are, of course, just the tip of the growing South Park merchandising iceberg that has surfaced over the past 15 months in the sophomoric seas once sailed by Beavis and Butt-head. And you don't have to be a carnie to know that. Even if you haven't had the pleasure of viewing the crudely animated half-hour series (which, now in its second season, airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central, with repeats on Saturday and Sunday nights), then you've probably run across a Cartman "Kick ass!" T-shirt or the phrase "Omigod, they killed Kenny" on a bumper sticker. Actually, if Beavis and Butt-head was "crude," then we're going to need a more severe word to describe what passes for both humor and animation in the world of South Park -- it's the sort of cartoon you might imagine Beavis and Butt-head dreaming up between Whitesnake and Winger videos.
In reality, South Park is the brainchild of two Colorado college buddies who have fast become the lowbrow Matt Damon and Ben Affleck of Hollywood. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were aspiring underground filmmakers when they collaborated on an obscenity-laced South Park holiday short (in which Jesus battles Santa Claus) three years ago at the behest of a Fox executive who essentially wanted them to produce a video Christmas card for him. Since South Park began airing on Comedy Central, in the fall of 1997, the duo have co-starred in the abysmal Parker-penned film Orgazmo (a porn-industry farce that scored an NC-17 rating) and in Jerry Zucker's equally absurd if less offensive BASEketball (which completed the Damon/Affleck analogy by turning Zucker into Parker & Stone's Gus Van Sant).
The South Park cash cow, however, hasn't run out of milk just yet. Last week saw the release of Chef Aid: The South Park Album (American/Columbia), a star-studded collection of exclusive and mostly new tunes by a surprisingly diverse collection of artists: from Rancid and Joe Strummer to Master P and Wyclef Jean, from Elton John and Meat Loaf to Devo and Ween, with a few choice cameos by the cast of South Park. TV soundtracks are nothing new: Melrose Place set the precedent a couple of years ago when it proved a perfectly capable marketing vehicle for an album of music that had little or nothing to do with the actual show, setting the stage for discs like The X Files-approved Songs in the Key of X and more recent compilations linked to Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Touched by an Angel. But South Park has actually gone to the trouble of manufacturing a plausible and, well, rather amusing context for its foray into the realm of pop music: Chef Aid is ostensibly a benefit CD for one of South Park's best-loved characters -- Jerome "Chef" McElroy.
A little background for the uninitiated: South Park stars a group of hapless but not helpless, cynical but not necessarily sinister kids (Kyle, Cartman, Stan, and Kenny) who run amok in a Colorado community that is populated by moronic, maniacal, or at least deeply disturbed adults and regularly visited by such unfortunate celebrities as Barbra Streisand and Kathie Lee Gifford. As part of the fun, which usually includes a healthy dose of puerile bathroom humor, a few brutal jokes at a choice celebrity's expense, and some sort of blatant racial stereotyping, Kenny is almost always killed. The only real voice of reason in South Park is deep and unmistakably black. It belongs, in the real world, to Isaac Hayes and, in South Park, to Jerome McElroy, lunchroom chef and certified salisbury-steak specialist. It may not be surprising that UPN got picketed earlier this year for airing an idiotic sit-com about slavery in the 19th-century South. How, then, do we account for the continued existence of the dated African-American caricature that is Chef? There are no easy answers in South Park, except perhaps that animation is a medium with more latitude than more reality-based programming.
In any case, it's Chef who provides South Park with its bridge to the pop music, both literally (he is Isaac Hayes) and fictionally, thanks to South Park episode #214, a/k/a Chef Aid. The episode, which aired last week (and will be repeated on December 30 at 10 p.m.), finds Chef in dire need of financial support from some of his old friends in the music community when he's ordered to pay Capitalist Records a $2 million harassment fine. The crisis is precipitated by Alanis Morissette, who plagiarizes a Chef-penned tune titled "Stinky Britches." Chef doesn't want any money, just credit for writing the song. But in a bizarre twist of fate, Dream Team legal eagle Johnnie Cochran confuses a jury into awarding damages to Capitalist Records. After "whoring" himself to the women in South Park nets Chef only $400,000 or so, the kids organize a "Chef Aid" concert, at which Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Ween, Rancid, Joe Strummer, and, of course, Primus (they wrote the South Park theme song, after all) perform.
In addition to the Chef Aid episode, the CD release was accompanied by a separate half-hour This Is Spinal Tap-style parody of a VH-1 "Behind the Music" rockumentary featuring faux interviews with various artists associated with Chef Aid. Narrated by John Lydon, Behind the Menu (also airing in repeats on Comedy Central this month) coaxes high praise for Chef out of Joe Strummer ("He's the number one influence on everything we've ever done"), Meat Loaf (who claims he was a 155-pound folk singer doing Peter, Paul and Mary covers before Chef's meat loaf pointed him in a heftier direction), Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea (who admits to a sexual affair with Chef), and Ike Turner ("He helped me write 'Rocket 88' "). Like South Park itself, Behind the Menu is amusement by way of absurdity. It does, however, end with a clever punch line -- Isaac Hayes, when asked about Chef, replies "Shaft? Shaft was a movie that I scored back in 1971. I won an Oscar for it."
Chef Aid probably won't win Hayes any formal industry accolades (a Cable Ace maybe). But it's poised to be his biggest-selling album in years. In the guise of Chef, he handles lead vocals on four of the disc's 21 tracks, which are, no coincidence, four of the disc's funnier tunes. There's "Chocolate Salty Balls (P.S. I Love You)," a '70s funk jam built around a "Big Ten-Inch Record"-style double entendre, a groovy tribute to ménage à trois ("Simultaneous"), a hilarious duet with Meat Loaf titled "Tonight Is Right for Love (With Meredith Baxter-Birney)," and an explicit love song, complete with some sweet falsettos, directed at Kathie Lee Gifford ("No Substitute"). What's interesting is that all four tunes were penned by Parker, who has the writing credit for the disc's Perry Farrell number ("Hot Lava") as well. Parker (keyboards) and Stone (bass and drums) are also both part of Chef's support band on the album, and their band D.V.D.A. (porn industry shorthand for, well . . . let's just leave it at that) back up Farrell on his track.
The rest of the Chef Aid CD is, as you might expect, a mixed bag. An enthusiastic intro by Chef -- "Back together at last: DMX, Ozzy Osbourne, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Crystal Method" -- lends a satirical edge to "Nowhere To Run," a tune that indeed features NYC rapper DMX, metal vet Ozzy Osbourne, and Wu-Tanger Ol' Dirty Bastard doing their thing over a Crystal Method mix. But it stands on its own as a cool fusion of techno, hip-hop, and metal. "Brad Logan" is pretty standard Clash-style Rancid, and "It's a Rockin' World" is Clash-style Strummer (with Flea, Tom Morello, DJ Bonebrake, and Benmont Tench lending a hand). Master P hijacks Curtis Mayfield's '70s film theme "Freddie's Dead" for the South Central Park gangsta goof "Kenny's Dead," and it's easily one of the best things to come out of the No Limit camp yet. Putting Ike Turner and Rick James together on a track is in itself an exercise in bad taste. Unfortunately, their Parker-penned duet "Love Gravy" just isn't funny enough. Ween's "The Rainbow," with its Beatlesque refrain "so many colors in the homo rainbow," falls squarely into that gray area of offensive comedy that sustains South Park -- you know it's tongue-in-cheek, but it's so deadpan sincere in its "celebration" of the gay lifestyle that by the end you're not so sure anymore. Besides, it's a real catchy tune. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, Eric Cartman's take on Styx's "Come Sail Away" and South Park minor character Ned Gerblansky's stiff rendition of Bad Company's "Feel like Makin' Love" are much better in theory than in practice, where they're practically unlistenable.
The beauty of Chef Aid: The South Park Album is that the quality of the
performances will probably have little or no impact on the quantity of its
sales. In that sense, the entire project is a satire of a business in which
style has always triumphed commercially over substance. If only 1/9th of the
people who tuned in to last year's South Park Christmas special
purchased the disc last week (i.e., half a million people), then Chef
Aid will debut ahead of Alanis Morissette's new album on the Billboard
charts. Shaft, I mean Chef, will be laughing all the way to the bank.
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