On paper, the idea of Cobra Kai sounds ridiculous: A YouTube Red series set decades after the original Karate Kid movies, starring an adult Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. It’s an idea that, if handled poorly, could have disastrous ramifications on a franchise many people hold near and dear to their hearts. Thankfully, the show’s creators, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald, are part of that group, and they did their best not to disappoint.
“John, Josh, and Hayden are just the right guys to do this,” Ralph Macchio, who reprises his iconic role of Daniel, told io9. “The Karate Kid was Star Wars to them. They know more about the Karate Kid films and, certainly, the original film, than I know. It’s unbelievable. They are the ultimate Karate Kid fans on the planet. They had the idea to write and create what they believe the fans would want to see.”
That idea flips the script of the original movies. Now Johnny, the ‘80s villain who lost to Daniel in the original film—and who’s once again played by William Zabka—is in his 50s and is a super at a small apartment complex. There he meets Miguel (Xolo Mariduena), a high school kid who gets bullied and turns to Johnny to learn karate. (Mr. Miyagi anyone?) In turn, Johnny relaunches his old karate dojo Cobra Kai, a move that the San Fernando Valley’s number-one car dealer, Daniel LaRusso, is none too pleased about.
“The show is presented in a way that is relevant and made sense for the times now,” Zabka told io9. “It isn’t just a nostalgic spoof type of thing. It doesn’t lean too much on the past. It’s set today with characters that have grown up, that we’re familiar with, and that we’re going to enjoy seeing what’s happened to them.”
However, much like Mr. Miyagi told Daniel LaRusso time and time again, balance is the key to everything. And so too is the case with Cobra Kai.
“For the record, [The Karate Kid] is our favorite movie, collectively and individually,” executive producer Josh Heald told io9. “We knew that if we had an opportunity to tell this story it would be in the tone that would appeal to those hardcore Karate Kid fans, but also make it accessible to someone who’s never really seen the movie.”
Such an undertaking might have been easy if Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald had done anything like this before, but they hadn’t. Collectively, they’re known for the Hot Tub Time Machine and Harold and Kumar movies, which they’re well aware might worry fans of the original films.
“We’re mindful that people are looking at this project with concern, especially the Karate Kid fans,” Heald said. “But to be honest, that was the thing from the moment we brought this idea to anyone. We were upfront saying, ‘Look, we love Karate Kid. It would destroy us if we did something silly or disingenuous to that property.’ That’s the real earnestness we approached [it] with.”
That earnestness was one of the things that sold Macchio, who was the last of the major players to sign on to Cobra Kai.
“I think I was probably the last guy to come to the party,” Macchio admits. “The Mr. Miyagi element to these films was such a big part of that magic, and it was very important to me that he was not lost in the Cobra Kai series—and it’s not. It’s peppered throughout and the influence of Miyagi will a big part of Daniel going forward.” (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi in the franchise, passed away in 2005.)
But Zabka somehow knew his path would cross with Johnny Lawrence again. In 2007, he directed a parody music video called “Sweep the Leg” for the band No More Kings. The video went viral and he had an epiphany.
“I was really cautious to do that because I wasn’t sure what I was poking at as far as the legacy of the film,” Zabka said. “But from there I had this feeling. The feedback was so good it kind of woke something up in me. Really this moment has been brewing in me since then.”
Obviously, Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald couldn’t make Cobra Kai without Zabka and Macchio. But, as excited as the super fans were to secure Daniel and Johnny, it’s the young cast, which also includes Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) and Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), that gives Cobra Kai the crossover potential that made the show even possible.
“I think we have a terrific young cast,” Macchio said. “They really blossom throughout the season and they will be the longevity of the show. That’s really important to have that because we want the kids to love to watch the show regardless of whether they are students of the Karate Kid films or not.”
“We took everything we loved about The Karate Kid, we extracted it and created these little nuggets of Karate Kid crack that you consume,” Schlossberg said. “[It works] if you’re a hardcore Karate Kid fan, but if you’re just a kid going to high school, now you can see what cyberbullying is like in a world with Johnny Lawrence and Cobra Kai. It’s fun to merge these things together and YouTube Red is the perfect platform and audience to deal with that kind of subject matter.”
After Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald secured the rights to Karate Kid from Overbrook Entertainment (Will Smith’s company, which controlled the rights after the 2010 remake), they took the show to several potential outlets, including Netflix and TBS. Ultimately, though, the show landed on YouTube Red—not just because YouTube is one of the most popular websites with a young fanbase, but also because older fans could find the show there, too. Plus, the episodes wouldn’t have to be restricted by length, which allowed the show’s creators to present it in a very specific way.
“It was crucial to us that there weren’t commercial breaks,” Hurwitz said. “The movies are obviously cinematic. We view the show in a cinematic way and we wanted there to be a consistent flow to it.”
Of course, to keep that flow, the show also has to feel like The Karate Kid. One way it does that is by using footage from the movies, including never-before-seen dallies from John G. Avildsen’s original shoot, which the producers had Sony dig out of their archives. The other thing was a bit more obvious: Fill the episodes with winks and references to the original movies. But, they had to be careful.
“The one word that would come up when we would speak with anyone on this project was ‘restraint,’” Heald said. “If we allowed ourselves to go all in, we would write a lot of the characters from the movie into a lot of the episodes. But we also realized that’s a way for the show to get too big too quickly and flame out.”
“The show has to work on people who have never seen The Karate Kid before,” Hurwitz added. “It might work better for people who are huge fans, but our instinct in general is the winks to the audience have to be extremely subtle.”
For the most part, that’s true. The 10-episode first season has mostly subtle, but some not so subtle, scenes and callbacks to the original films. And, if Hurwitz, Schlossberg, and Heald have their way, anything fans don’t see in this first season could come back in the future.
“As far as we’re concerned, the first four Karate Kid movies are all canon,” Heald said. “Our hope is this is a show that has multiple seasons so, for us, we view all the characters from those movies as characters that have the potential to show up on the show.”
“So if you’re a fan of [evil Cobra Kai sensei John] Kreese or [his mentor from Part III] Terry Silver, we have the potential to touch on any of those things as time goes on,” Schlossberg added.
Those names may not mean something to everyone, but if you’re a fan of the film series, it’s very exciting. And, according to Macchio, that really is what shines through most about Cobra Kai.
“When you hear someone say ‘This is for the fans’ everybody rolls their eyes,” he said. “But, really, this is for the fans. It keeps the legacy of that wonderful film that’s so special to me going. And even though it’s Cobra Kai, it’s not The Karate Kid, it is still a piece of that.”
Cobra Kai is now on YouTube Red. You can watch the whole series, including first two episodes for free, at this link. Check out our review below.