Sketchworks, after winning lawsuit, brings back ‘Grease’ parody ‘Vape’

The rights holders to ‘Grease’ tried to stop the comedy troupe, claiming ‘Vape’ infringed on its copyright.

After seeing a Serenbe version of “Grease” in 2017, several Sketchworks comedy members decided to create a modern-day parody dubbed “Vape.” After a successful run in Atlanta, a theater in New York City booked the show.

But in 2019, the rights holders of “Grease” sent a cease-and-desist order, claiming Sketchworks was infringing on their copyright. As a result, the New York shows were nixed.

Sketchworks owners Brian Troxell and Julie Shaer were gobsmacked at first. But after consulting with attorneys, they filed a federal lawsuit in New York claiming copyright law allowed this type of parody as fair use. Everyone from Mad magazine to “Saturday Night Live” have lived off parodies for decades, the lawsuit argued.

The pandemic delayed resolution of the case but United States District Judge Laura Taylor Swain this spring finally weighed in and decided in favor of Sketchworks, allowing the Atlanta-based comedy troupe to perform “Vape” again.

The show returns Oct. 7 and 8 and for two more weekends after that at Village Theatre in Atlanta. (Tickets are available at freshtix.com for $29 apiece.)

The Sketchworks version, written and directed by women, heavily plays off the 1978 film version of “Grease” starring John Travolta as Danny and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and parodies nine of the songs.

A spokeswoman for Concord Theatricals, which is an agent for “Grease” rights owner James H. Jacobs and Harris N.A, did not respond to a request for comment. The “Grease” rights holders argued in court documents that “Vape” does not address the substance of “Grease” but rather comments on society “writ large.” The judge rejected this argument, calling it “overly simplistic and incomplete.”

According to Sketchworks’ original lawsuit, the parody “pokes fun at various absurdities in ‘Grease’” and “uses millennial slang, popular culture, a modern lens, and exaggeration to comment upon the plot, structure, issues and themes of ‘Grease’ and to criticize its misogynistic and sexist elements.”

Jokes in “Vape” include how everyone at the high school looks at least 30 and spontaneously breaks into choreographed song-and-dance. The parody also notes how Sandy, the main female character, absurdly changes her entire look just to nab Danny at the end. And since it’s set in present day, there are references to online dating apps, nude selfies and, of course, vaping.

Catie Hogan, the primary writer of “Vape” who is now 35, said she has nothing but affection for the 1978 film version of “Grease” and this parody was done “100% out of love.”

She made sure the characters are “kind of self-aware and are really poking fun at themselves the entire time.”

After the cease-and-desist order, Hogan said she was “scared to death. I didn’t write this with any intention to upset anybody. We made sure what we were doing followed fair use laws.” That fear turned into anger and that is why they decided to fight the “Grease” rights holders.

Casey Holloway, the “Vape” director, said they are thrilled they won and are now able to present the musical again. “I think because of all the pain and agony,” she said, “we owe it to ourselves to do it again. There were a lot of people in Atlanta who didn’t get to see it the first time around.”

She said they made only minor tweaks to the script, such as subbing out the term “vlog,” which was in vogue in 2018 but quickly faded from the vernacular, and replacing it with TikTok.


IF YOU GO

“Vape: The Musical”

8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Through Oct. 22. $29. Village Theatre, 349 Decatur St., Atlanta. sketchworkscomedy.com.