We talk to Cobra Kai showrunners about the inspiration & future of the show

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

By now, you've surely heard of Cobra Kai and whether you grew up with THE KARATE KID or not, it's a show that appeals to all generations. As someone who grew up with it (and was even inspired to study martial arts to this day as a result) and has watched the entirety of the new show, I can say that it's an absolute blast of pure nostalgic bliss. I sat down and had a lengthy discussion with show creators Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald and Hayden Schlossberg, who prior to this are best known for the HAROLD AND KUMAR movies (update on them in here as well) and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (in which William Zabka appears, btw). Talking to these guys, who began all of this as fans, it became apparent that they are the right people for this gig, which is something they pursued to get made, rather than get chased down to continue. We talk about how the show came to be, how they got Johnny and Daniel back, plans for the future of the show, including cameos from characters in the first four films, and finding the right tone and balance that would appeal to fans and non-fans alike. Check out our discussion, revisit some clips and trailers and watch the first episode at the end! No Mercy!

How did this come to be? How did this happen?

HAYDEN: Really, it came to be because Jon and I have been friends for a long time, Josh Heald met Jon in college, I met Josh through that, so the three of us have been friends for over 20 years now and, y’know, we bonded over movies over the years and Karate Kid is one of those movies that we’d always talk about. And I think like a lot of kids from the ‘80’s it was just one of those signature movies. And, as we got older and became adults, the three of us became professional screenwriters and directors and we started actually working on movies. And, I think it was probably 10 or 15 years ago that we thought, ‘Hey, do you think that maybe we’d be able to write a sequel for the Karate Kid, but from Johnny’s perspective?” cause we were always just obsessed with the Cobra Kai like every Karate Kid fan.

But, I think the nature of the movie business and star power and all sorts of things made it very difficult to sort of pursue it as a feature film and then when the Jaden Smith reboot came out it seemed like, ‘Okay, well, it’s never gonna happen.’ But then we started seeing what was going on in the streaming world, y’know, driving by a billboard of Fuller House with Kimmy Gibler on it, we were like, y’know, there may be a way to do this. And when we started thinking about it as a series we realized, Oh my God, we’re gonna be able to shift perspective and show all sides of the story and we got really excited and we just called our agent and said, “Hey, who owns the rights?’ And that led us down the practical path of getting it made.

JOSH: This was special to us because it’s an idea that-it’s a movie we all love-we’re all from New Jersey, all moved to California and made that Daniel Laruso-like journey. It’s an idea that’s not an original idea, it’s based on a very, very famous movie, but it’s an idea that the three of us nurtured and aggressively sought out, y’know, how can we get the rights to actually do this and partner with the right people to make that happen.

Do you feel like being a fan enhances your vision for something like this?

JON: For us this is like the highest level of fan fiction that you can get and it’s an incredible experience to be able to have, because we have talked about these characters since we were teenagers. The Johnny Lawrence character in particular was somebody who always fascinated us, because Billy Zabka himself was sort of like that quintessential ‘80’s bully in several films, but in the Karate Kid you saw this sort of third dimension to the character that was really interesting and to not only us, but all sorts of Karate Kids fans have been talking about it for many years. I think that having that perspective where you’ve seen a movie so many times – Ralph and Billy will sometimes say, ‘You guys know the movie better than we do’ and that’s because we didn’t live through the experience of making the movies and that whole process that they went through. All we have to draw from are the 90 minutes of the first movie and the second and the third and the fourth, we view all four of the movies that had Miyagi as canon to this series. And, to be able to expand that world and go forward in the world but also go backwards in that world; where did Johnny Lawrence comes from? It’s just been a blast to work on.

JOSH: As fans getting to write your favorite characters, we put much more self-imposed pressure on ourselves not to corrupt what made the original movie so special. It was very important to us now that we’re able to be molding the clay that is the Karate Kid universe it’ll need to look a certain way and have that look and that feel when it’s all done. So, the whole way through we were very mindful and that was the benefit of having the three of us on this was kind of keeping each other-showing restraint at the right times, calling each other on something when it felt like are we being too frivolous with this, are we just grabbing that because it’s an Easter Egg and really finding the ways to tell this story that feel organic to the brand.

The show had a great balance of humor and drama. How did you guys find the pulse and balance of that?

HAYDEN: When we first started pursuing this we realized everybody would assume it’s a comedy coming from us because we’ve worked on the Harold and Kumar movies and Josh worked on Hot Tub Time Machine and also the Karate Kid itself has reached a level itself in pop culture that there’s all sorts of sketches and things like that and there’s a lot of different ways to take it, but when you’re a hardcore Karate Kid fan, like the three of us are, we know that fans won’t like it if you’re not taking the world seriously and what we would be excited about would be something that feels like a true continuation. So, we treated it like a true continuation, but the fact that we shifted perspective to Johnny inherently changed things, not from us wanting to make Karate Kid funny or edgy or anything like that, but now you have a different type of mentor character and this is a guy who’s from the ‘80’s and looks at kids today as weak, not just physically, but emotionally. There was just an inherent comedy to explore in just being natural and being grounded and coming from a place of character. Combined with the fact that now these characters of Johnny and Daniel are in their 50’s and there’s still some of that rivalry, y’know, just treating that seriously and dramatically actually makes it funny.

JON: The closest comparison we had when we were tackling this was Better Call Saul. We always said that we’re giving Johnny Lawrence that Better Call Saul treatment. Breaking Bad was not comedy and Better Call Saul isn’t exactly a comedy, but they took the most comedic character from Breaking Bad and created a show around him, which has real, heavy dramatic stuff going on, but there’s just far more comedy on that show than there was on Breaking Bad by the nature of who the protagonist is and who you’re spending time with. And I think it’s a similar kind of thing; we always wanted to approach the Karate Kid universe with sincerity, but while approaching this particular angle of the story with sincerity it leads to comedy.

JOSH: Even in its most sincere form as we were breaking story for the show it was all from a dramatic place. It was never, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to get this joke in there’ or this, it was always this dramatic story, but then you realize at the end of the day it all boils down to this 34 year old karate rivalry and that’s just inherently funny that all the stakes of the show hinge on that. 

HAYDEN: I also think looking back at the original even though it’s not funny there is something funny about this teenage karate gang that’s in multi-colored leather jackets and riding around on motorbikes and almost killing this kid. It’s really serious. But, by today’s standards there’s something very funny about it and so again you want to treat it seriously, and we do, and there’s issues of bullying on the show that we don’t want to make light of, but there are some extreme outrageous things from the original that help with the comedy.

A while back there was a video breakdown that took another look at the Karate Kid where it paints Johnny as the good guy and Daniel is the bad guy. Did you guys see that or get influenced by it?

JON: We love that video, we think that video is hilarious. It was one of the many things over the years that made us feel like we were on the right path, because we’ve been talking about doing this kind of show for 15 years now, originally as a movie, but now it’s a show. You saw more people who are exploring the Karate Kid universe in a comedic way and digging deep. Listen that video is Johnny Lawrence’s attorney, basically, making that video and glossing over all the sadistic things that he and his karate gang were doing to this new kid in school. I think, all joking aside, one of the things we love about the original Karate Kid was the depth of that Johnny Lawrence character in seeing the vulnerability in his eyes when his sensei is telling him to sweep the leg and you see how conflicted he is and how he gives Daniel the trophy at the end. At the end of the day this was just a kid that had a bad teacher, he had a teacher who taught him basically the dark side of karate and with different tutelage they have chosen a different path. So, I think for us it’s about examining who Johnny Lawrence is, what made him who he was and who is he now and that’s what’s interesting. We love that video and it’s another one of those things that when we saw that video and you see how many people are enjoying it, like ourselves, it’s like there’s a real audience for a show like what we had planned.

JOSH: We didn’t have to take sides and say that was an illegal kick or it wasn’t an illegal kick. All we had to know was that Johnny Lawrence is tortured by the events at the end of high school. From everything that happened in that movie to what happened at the beginning of Karate Kid Part 2 when, y’know, he’s trying to leave with a second-place trophy and his sensei tries to kill him. So, when you look back on that and you’re in Johnny’s headspace and you run into Daniel Laruso it’s easy to understand that from Johnny’s perspective Daniel was this villainous character in his life, because it’s easy to forget the things that you’re responsible for that may have been villainous toward him and we wanted to definitely walk our audience through that headspace a little bit.

Were William Zabka and Ralph Macchio apprehensive in coming back? How did you sell them both on returning to these characters?

JOSH: There were two meetings, one with William and one with Ralph, they were very different meetings, cause we knew Billy going in – once we had met with Oakbrook Entertainment and were given the rights to work with and Sony TV on the idea it was time to get the guys and tell them what we’d been working on in the shadows here and with Billy it was great because we knew Billy and had a sense that he would respond to the idea of putting on the Johnny Lawrence character again and getting to tell this kind of story that had a lot of nuance that a movie didn’t have the real estate to sell.

The meeting with Ralph was different because we didn’t know Ralph. What we did know about Ralph was that he had said no to anything really Karate Kid related for over 30 years and we knew we had a mountain to climb. We flew to New York and sat down to a four-hour lunch where we said, ‘Look, we know you’ve been saying no to The Karate Kid things for 30 years, but we’re gonna pitch you this anyway, because we have a feeling this one might not be the one that you were pitched before’ and he was really intrigued by what we were saying. It was a different Daniel than he’d been pitched before; this was a Daniel without Miyagi in his life. We weren’t walking him through the cookie cutter, y’know, ‘hey, it’s the Karate Man and you’re this character you have a son and you’re teaching him karate and there’s a bully’. We weren’t just kind of saying let’s rehash the movie. And we were coming at it through the lens of Johnny Lawrence at the top of the series and the show POV was being skewed that way; we’re calling the show Cobra Kai.

All of these things were very unexpected for Ralph and he thought about it long and hard, we had a few more discussions and thankfully he decided to give us his trust and it’s been a tremendous relationship where he’s been a wonderful partner on this journey; when you have Daniel Laruso and Johnny Lawrence there to kind of-when you’re writing for them and they’ve lived it it’s special.

JON: And Ralph went from being very cautious about diving back into the franchise to diving back in full force. So, when you watch the first episode and you see him chopping prices, a lot of the moves there were a lot of his karate ad libs and he had a lot of fun with it.

JOSH: Y’know, The Karate Kid has been dealt with very comedically through the years, it’s been parodied, you’ve heard the song ‘You’re the Best Around’ used for comedic effect, whereas in the movie ‘You’re The Best Around’ was used in earnest, awesome effect of ‘this is the journey, this is how you show a character growing!’

JON: The sense we got from Ralph was that even though we had made comedies throughout our career he was familiar with our work and liked the work that we did and he knows enough about filmmaking to understand the craftsmanship that goes behind the kind of work that we were doing and when we came in there we insisted that we were taking this world extremely seriously and want to continue the legacy and build upon it in an earnest way that may have more laughs than the originals had because of this new perspective and the 30 years that have passed he got behind it. As soon as he heard this new story that would be told it was definitely up his alley.

JOSH: Earnestness and restraint were our buzzwords. We had to be earnest with the story we were telling at all times and we had to use restraint when just trying to do something cool that’s awesome because it’s Karate Kid and we could do it, so we needed to kind of have that balance.

The show touches on a whole new generation of kids, from Daniel’s daughter, Johnny’s son to Johnny’s first student Miguel. What was their approach and familiarity in being a part of this Karate Kid show?

JON: I can speak to our approach first was that for this series to truly work and be able to grow and evolve this new generation was crucial in our opinion. Not only do these characters add to the depth of Johnny and Daniel, but we wanted young audiences today to fall in love with these characters the way we fell in love with Johnny and Danile and Ally and all the teenagers when we were young. The thing that was really fun was seeing this new generation of kids, some of whom had seen the movie before others who were discovering it through the process, all of them fell in love with that world in a deeper way than they had going in. They became sort of obsessed with those original movies. If they were on the Cobra Kai side they become very hardcore Cobra Kai, if they were on the Laruso side they were very defensive of the Laruso and Miyagi legacy. Every single young actor on the show was eager and frothing at the mouth to do karate, to have fight scenes, to be able to kick some ass. It was fun just watching the enthusiasm that they all had for their own characters, but also just for the franchise as a whole.

JOSH: I think our younger characters know a lot about, or researched a lot about what went into making The Karate Kid and there was a lot of martial arts training, y’know, Pat Johnson, who was the martial arts coordinator for the movie, really trained the Cobra Kai’s differently than he trained Ralph and Pat Morita and it shows in the final product and I think our younger cast on the show, especially the ones that delved into the world of martial arts on the show really just took a liking to that and wanted to have a little bit of that in their own training. It was the first show I think any of us worked on where we’d be in a writer’s room or on a call with the network where we’d hear people punching and kicking each other in the next room to kind of work out the next day’s work. There were always smiles on their faces, always enthusiasm, excited for being a part of this universe.

Since Karate Kid 1-4 are considered canon, is there a thought or chance that we could see Hilary Swank’s character pop up at some point?

HAYDEN: I think anything is possible in the world of, y’know, a series and that part of the history of our universe and our characters. We approached the show with really focusing in on that first season, but we do have a plan for multiple seasons and places we want to go. There’s definitely characters from those original movies that we want to bring in and that could happen in all sorts of different ways. Obviously, we don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s absolutely-any character from this world is possible.

JOSH: We feel very lucky to have four movies worth of characters, worlds and story to work with as kind of source material that we can continue to pull from as the series evolves. We won’t get into anything specific, but we look at all four of those movies as fair ground.

JOSH: That was an important character to bring back in that way by design and it’s kind of indicative of how many characters of significance there are in this universe. There are other characters out there that we didn’t have the time or real estate to serve in this season and we want to make sure that everybody’s arrival into this universe really makes sense to the greater story that we’re telling so it doesn’t feel frivolous and also that we definitely know where we’re going.

You said you have a framework, but do you have an endgame? Or could this continue infinitely?

JON: When we wrote that first season there was so much that we couldn’t fit in that first season. It was crazy, once you get it up and running and you have an episode to work with you realize just how much you’re able to fill in there. We know where we wanted to go, we have thoughts as the endgame for these characters; any of that stuff is subject to change as time goes on and you may come up with ideas that you like better. In our minds, we love the idea of doing the show for a number of seasons, we can’t say the exact number, because like you said there’s so much to draw from [from] the prior movies, but there’s also so much to draw from with what we created in this first season. Our hope is to do several more seasons of the show and we have a pretty clear sense of where we want it to go and we’d just love to have the opportunity to do it.

I think there’s a stigma of fans having control of something like this, but I’d argue that it’s in the right hands, because you’re fans…

HAYDEN: Exactly. I would emphasize that. This was not Sony or Overbrook looking to milk some more dollars out of this IP. This was just the three of us are superfans of The Karate Kid who also happen to be professional writers and we explored this and also explored it not just to have the awesome experience of creating this high-end fan fiction, but we’ve seen some of these other movies, these reboots and stuff over the years and we had our own take on that. There’s definitely nostalgia in this but we made this show knowing that we can’t rely on the memberberries of the original movie and it has to be its own thing and it has to be awesome in its own way and I think we tried to make a show that captured everything that we loved about the original movie but was different and original and enough and didn’t feel like we’re just copying something and bringing in older actors to play younger roles.

JOSH: We wanted this to be a show that if you’ve never seen Karate Kid it’s an interesting show still, because here are two guys that have a rivalry from high school and that is kind of fueling all of the different elements that come into play in the show. But, if you’re a superfan or any level of fan of Karate Kid you’ll see the things on the show that we fought for that were kind of deal breakers for us, whether it was music or a certain shot or a certain character and that’s the stuff that you really needed to be a fan of the movie to the degree that we are to make it.

What’s up with Harold and Kumar, are we going to see a return of those guys or have we seen the end of them?

JON: We don’t believe you’ve seen the end of Harold and Kumar. We have no concrete plans for another Harold and Kumar movie, but Hayden and I are still very close friends with Jon and Kal and we speak with them very frequently. Many times a year we talk about another installment of Harold and Kumar. I think there’s love of those characters and that world in all of us who made those movies and the idea of bringing them all back is something that would be awesome for all of us. We just need to find that right time and moment.

HAYDEN:  It has to be the right thing. Just like Karate Kid we are also huge fans of the franchise we created and don’t want to just do another one to do another one. Hopefully the success of Super Troopers 2 this weekend will get the execs and the agents trying to convince us to get going on something.

Cobra Kai is now streaming on YouTubeRed. Watch the first episode below!

Source: JoBlo.com

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