When ‘Cobra Kai’ debuted last year, it sounded like a one-off joke: a YouTube series catching up with the characters from the cornball-classic 1984 film ‘The Karate Kid.’ Yet the series packed a surprising emotional punch as it traced how the original climactic showdown between the underdog Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and the bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), of the militaristic titular dojo, continues to influence their lives — and those of their children.
The 10-episode first season knocked out critics, earning a rare 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its earnest tone seemed all the more surprising given the lowbrow comic credits of the creators. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg wrote the ‘Harold & Kumar’ films, while Josh Heald penned ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ and its sequel.
Before season two’s debut, Hurwitz, Schlossberg and Heald waxed on and off with The New York Times. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Jon Hurwitz: The three of us have been friends for over 20 years. We were huge ‘Karate Kid’ fans and bonded over it. We pitched our thoughts [to Overbrook Entertainment, which owned the rights] and got their blessing immediately. We sat down with William Zabka and convinced him, and then it was all about convincing Ralph Macchio. It was never designed to be a straight comedy. It was always meant to be more dramatic and to give Johnny the ‘Better Call Saul’ treatment.
Josh Heald: We loved the idea there is this long-festering karate rivalry from high school that had landed both of these adults in different places: one atop the mountain and one down in the valley. The comedy comes from frustration, regret and revenge, and that bleeds into the next generation. We position Johnny as a relic, somebody who is stuck in his time and doesn’t get along with the millennial generation.
Hayden Schlossberg: We were such huge fans of the original three movies, we didn’t have to, although we did anyway. The goal is never to consciously reference the movies when we’re writing. It’s to write the characters as they are today. Those movies are their pasts, so it’s an organic way to show footage from the original films when one of the characters is having a moment of regret. But it doesn’t feel like nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia.
Heald: We’re always writing with a true respect, appreciation and reverence for the source material, and we know there are a lot of ‘Karate Kid’ superfans out there who relate to this story. But we also wanted to write for a larger audience that doesn’t know ‘The Karate Kid Part III’ intimately.
Hurwitz: We all hear a lot of stories from parents who are able to watch the show with their kids, which is new to us, since we came from the world of R-rated comedies. It’s been an entry point for a new generation to watch the original films.
Hurwitz: We don’t look at it in a binary way. These stories are interwoven through that initial rivalry between Johnny and Daniel. That said, it was crucial to us to create a whole new generation of characters that an audience is going to fall in love with the way we fell in love with Johnny and Daniel back in the day.
Heald: We’re really grateful to have them because they are so connected to these characters. Every day of their lives when they walk down the street, somebody shouts one of the phrases from the movies to them. It was a very delicate process of entering this relationship. They’re not in the writers room day to day, but we have a lot of discussions.
Schlossberg: In some ways, bullying is exactly the same and, in other ways, it’s far worse because you have social media. What we wanted to do on the show is have moments that a young audience today can relate to but that also will stand the test of time. Our approach is not just showing how much bullying sucks but also showing kids trying to do something about it. It’s not just through physical strength but inner strength.
Hurwitz: Part of our approach to the fight scenes is also the consequences afterward. We don’t just have a fight scene and then brush it aside and there’s no lasting effect. We explore the results of these fights — the emotional and physical impact. These fights aren’t just happening in a vacuum. They’re all part of a bigger story.