[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the first season of “Cobra Kai.”]
Have mercy! Fans of the “Karate Kid” franchise can thank the Netflix comedy “Fuller House” for the presence of “Cobra Kai,” the YouTube Red series that continues the personal growth and martial arts adventures of Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio), Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and the community around them. Showrunners and co-creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg had been fans of “The Karate Kid” films since childhood and as screenwriters who had moved out to Los Angeles, they idly discussed revisiting that world through Johnny’s character.
But it wasn’t until decades later when the streaming space made room for such revivals that the idea really gelled as to what form this could take. The co-creators spoke to IndieWire about the origins of the series and where it could go next.
“We started to see the way things were progressing in the streaming narrative space and to be able to tell long-form stories, five-hour movies in a sense, and also seeing a billboard for ‘Fuller House’ that had Kimmy Gibbler on the billboard,” said Hurwitz. “We started to say, ‘Hey, this may be the kind of thing that we can pursue.’ So we came up with a take and had to figure out first, who has the rights to ‘Karate Kid’?”
The owner was Will Smith’s company Overbook Entertainment, which explains why his son Jaden Smith had starred in the 2010 remake with Jackie Chan. Once they had the greenlight from Overbook and Sony, the showrunners had to get its leading men on board.
“We already knew Billy [Zabka]. Josh had worked with him on ‘Hot Tub Time Machine,’ and we’ve all been in touch with him for years, so we had a feeling this would be something that would be up his alley,” Hurwitz said. “So that was all about meeting Ralph Macchio and convincing him after 34 years of saying ‘no’ to finally say ‘yes.’ And once he saw the vision that we had in mind he jumped on board and it’s been kind of off to the races ever since.”
“Cobra Kai” picks up three decades after the events of “The Karate Kid,” in which underdog Daniel Larusso achieved victory at the All-Valley Karate Championship thanks to his instructor Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Bullying pretty boy Johnny lost not only the tournament but was also treated abominably by his own dojo’s sensei, the abusive John Kreese (Martin Kove). Now, 34 years later, Johnny is drinking away his lonely and sad existence, while Daniel is prospering as the Valley’s auto dealer king. Both men find their way back to practicing karate and even find pupils of their own, with Johnny re-opening a Cobra Kai dojo.
The Balancing Act
Key clips from the original film are scattered throughout “Cobra Kai,” offering context for the rivalry between Daniel and Johnny and continuity for their current situation. While access to the footage was a boon for the producers, they had to hold themselves back or else risk losing their narrative.
“It was very exciting to be able to have access to the whole movie, to all the movies, to Bill Conti’s score, to these characters, to the footage, even to some of the footage that John Avildsen had shot for the originals that never made it into the movie,” said Heald. “It became an embarrassment of riches in terms of what we could have done if we just wanted to be as gratuitous as possible, just putting our complete fanboy-ness for ‘Karate Kid’ front and center.
“But we also knew that the show could flame out very quickly if we just kept doing ‘Karate Kid,’ ‘Karate Kid,’ ‘Karate Kid’ at the expense of really growing and expanding and continuing the story while telling new ones as well,” he said. “We were very careful to always make sure that anything we used in terms of archival footage or references or Easter eggs had a point or was a real special moment that wasn’t surrounded by 10 more things the same way, so they stood out and they supported the story we were telling without just being something that we’re dipping into the well for the heck of it.”
While “Cobra Kai” hits hard in the nostalgia department, especially thanks to those clips, the showrunners knew they had to create an equally compelling story for the younger audience who is used to consuming TV through YouTube.
“We wanted to make sure that the story worked on a younger audience who has no knowledge of ‘The Karate Kid.’ So it was written on a broad level just to be a good story for today. I think tonally this is TV-14,” said Schlossberg. “Jon and I and Josh are used to working on hard R comedy. We felt that you look at the way teen dramas are today, you want to have some subject matter that kids can relate to. So we thought bullying is as socially relevant today as its ever been. And you’re able to look at those themes and deal with those issues in a unique way with one of the most iconic bullies of all time as your protagonist.”
Hurwitz added, “It was crucial to us when looking for the young cast to find actors who felt really authentic. Many of the young actors we have on the show are actual teenagers. We didn’t want to kind of do the old ‘90210’ thing where half the cast are pushing 30. We wanted to make sure that they felt real and they felt authentic, and we wanted audiences to fall in love with those characters in the same way we fell in love with Daniel Larusso and Ali, and Johnny back in the day.”
So far, the feedback the producers heard is that they’ve been successful in creating a series that encourages co-viewing. In some cases, parents had already introduced their kids to the original films, but in other cases, parents would watch the series first and then sit their kids down to watch it with them.
“This is the first thing I’ve ever gotten that I’ve been able to watch with my 7-year-old and she’s obsessed,” said Hurwitz. “She wears her Cobra Kai sweatshirt and headband to school every day.”