Atlanta's Sketchworks sketch comedy company had a successful run in Atlanta last year with its "Grease" parody "Vape: The Musical" so it set up a multi-day run earlier this month in New York at Improv Asylum NYC.
But the shows were scuttled by the rights’ owners of “Grease,” who filed a cease-and-desist order July 29, claiming it was infringing on their copyright rights and derogatory toward the beloved original show.
Sketchworks quickly filed a counter-suit, noting that parody has been a long-standing exception to copyright law to protect the First Amendment. If that weren't the case, Mad magazine (which parodied 'Grease" 30 years ago) would never have gotten off the ground and "Saturday Night Live" would lose plenty of raw material, said Brian Troxell, Sketchworks owner, in an interview.
"Vape" is set in present day and shows how teens face many of the same issues about sex, drugs and peer pressure that their peers six decades earlier dealt with," said Sketchworks Comedy writer and performer John D. Babcock III, who also portrays "Doody" in the parody, in a press release. It "reconsiders the misogyny and nostalgia for the 1950s through the #metoo lens. Significantly, it was written for comedic purposes. We are absolutely within our rights to write and perform a parody of 'Grease.'"
"Vape" writer Catie Hogan explained, in the same press release: "'Grease' has elements of misogyny and sexism throughout, and in writing Vape, I wanted to bring those to light via self-deprecating and somewhat meta jokes told by the characters."
Jokes include how everyone at the high school looks at least 30 and spontaneously break into choreographed song-and-dance. It also notes how Sandy, the main female character, absurdly changes her entire look just to hook Danny at the end. And since it’s set in 2019, there are references to on-line dating apps, nude selfies and, of course, vaping.
A spokeswoman for Concord Theatricals, which is an agent for "Grease" rights owner James H. Jacobs and Harris N.A, declined to comment. Troxell said that they did research before launching the show and figured they were in good shape legally with fair-use parody, including doing songs from "Grease" with different lyrics. After the cease-and-desist order, Sketchworks hired a local corporate and intellectual property transactions attorney Nancy Prager and a New York attorney Jordan Greenberger, who won a similar case for a parody musical of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" in 2017.
“Parody is as sacrosanct as copyright law,” Prager said in an interview. “We have the First Amendment. Over the past 20-plus years, the copyright industry has really raised the ire of fair-use advocates. I’m very much a staunch copyright believe but this case really challenged my perspective. It was so egregious to send this letter and a really harsh one at that without considering whether or not my client had a valid fair-use claim.”
Troxell said he would like to perform “Vape” in the future without Concord going after them again.
“ ‘Vape’ is not a substitute for ‘Grease,’ does not merely supersede‘Grease’ and does not usurp the market for ‘Grease,’ “ the lawsuit states. “The two works serve different market functions.”
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.