/Film has been following the phenomenon of Cobra Kai since it premiered on YouTube Premium in 2018. The continuation of The Karate Kid 30 years later gave Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) a lot more to do, and brought back Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as a father. Now, there’s a whole new generation of karate kids, some under the misguided leadership of Johnny’s Cobra Kai dojo, and a few under Daniel’s Miyagi-Do.
Netflix has acquired the phenomenon of Cobra Kai. As fans waited for news on when season 3 would premiere on YouTube, Netflix made the announcement this summer that the show was moving to the streaming service. Season 3 debuts in 2021, but the first two seasons are streaming on Netflix right now.
Cobra Kai creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald have spoken to /Film for every season so far, and they gave us more time to talk about the move to Netflix. There are some spoilers for the first two seasons in this conversation since many /Film readers are already obsessed with the show, and there’s a bit of what to expect when the show premieres its new season next year.
Is this launch a little different? When you started on YouTube. there was a big question about what Cobra Kai would be and a number of people may have thought it was a joke. Is it different coming out now, when even if people haven’t seen it, they’ve heard of Cobra Kai and know it’s a real show?
Schlossberg: Yes, it is different and it’s something that we talked about with Netflix when marketing the show. In 2018 when YouTube was marketing it, nobody knew what to expect. The Karate Kid is something that has had its share of parodies and certainly Jon, Josh, and myself had come from R-rated comedy. It was a half-hour show on YouTube, so I think there were some challenges in terms of conveying to the audience that this is actually something that we take seriously as a true continuation of The Karate Kid. And it is a comedy because the fact that they’re older now and their rivalry is still alive certainly allows for certain types of comedy that the original movies didn’t have. But, we never let that comedy distract from the overall feel and vibe and realism of this being a part of that universe. So this go-round, now that it’s on Netflix, now that we have a fan base and hardcore Karate Kid fans that treat this as canon and with great reviews, it’s a different ballgame. We talked to Netflix about really making it clear to their audience that if you like The Karate Kid or remember The Karate Kid, this is the continuation. You get to see what happens to the characters. There’s a lot of comedy, but there’s action. There’s romance and it’s certainly maybe the most nostalgic show since Happy Days in a lot of ways. There’s a lot to offer. I think this go-round, it’s a lot easier to sell that.
Legacy sequels have been hit and miss, even the recent Star Wars movies. What do you think you guys did right?
Hurwitz: I think first and foremost, this is a continuation that was generated by fans for fans and for ourselves. We love those characters. We love those movies. So before Sony could internally in their business meetings have those conversations about, “Hey, we should rejigger The Karate Kid and make some more loot off of it,” instead, this is fans coming to Sony who happen to be filmmakers and said, “We have a way to continue the story.” I think first and foremost, it was that continuation.
It was thinking we want to get Ralph Macchio, we want to get Billy Zabka, we want to get Martin Kove. We want to re-spark the rivalry that ourselves and fans all over the world fell in love with in 1984 and beyond. And we’re already invested in those characters, so let’s just continue the investment present day and see them as adults and the challenges that they have as real, functioning adults and introduce new characters into this world through their lives, through Miguel, who is as popular a character as Johnny or Daniel at this point, or Samantha or Hawk or Tory or Robbie. These are all characters that audiences have embraced. People in our age group have embraced them because we love Johnny, we love Daniel, and we love the people who are in their lives, their children or their surrogates. For a whole new generation, we believe we’re telling a human story that can get invested in Johnny and Daniel’s story but these new characters, they’ll get invested in in the same ways that we fell in love with Johnny and Daniel and Ali back in the day. So it’s really continuing the story and also making it fresh and for today. The famous saying in the Karate Kid universe, “different but same.” Those themes of bullying and mentorship that were present back in the day that are timeless, we continue with those themes present day, but with a 2018, 2019, 2020 flavor to them.
Is one of the reasons Cobra Kai works that you can make anyone an underdog, even if it’s Johnny?
Heald: Underdog stories are the bread and butter of the Karate Kid movies, the franchise, and our show. We knew from the get go that we had to draw a complex and layered and interesting character that we’re joining at the top of the series. We ended up with two. We were able to reboot Johnny as an underdog at that point in life and he intersects with the more classic teenage underdogs that are going through being the new kid and getting bullied. That intersection of underdogs, Johnny is able to rise to the occasion and take the baby steps towards becoming a mentor, but without the toolbox. That was the earliest underdog story we started to tell on this show, but more came. We met Aisha, who is also going through her own form of bullying even if she’s not being punched and kicked. That was our earliest attempt on this show of starting the cyber bullying conversation and trying to represent on the show that just because you don’t have scars or blood or a black eye doesn’t mean you’re not going through something terrible and doesn’t mean you don’t need something or somebody to rely on.
So we continue to challenge ourselves with every season of the show to tell new and interesting and evolving underdog stories because that’s the thing that you want your audience to grasp onto. With as many characters and points of view as you have, you can find an underdog in the truly sympathetic character. You can also find an underdog in the ‘Wow, I’m not sure I really like what this character stands for’ until he is an underdog and you find yourself rooting for them despite that. We try to do it from both sides.
In the 30 years between Karate Kid III and the end of season one, have you ever thought of all the other winners of the All Valley Karate Tournament and maybe they all had their own hero’s journey, too?
Heald: That’s a really interesting one. I don’t think we’ve ever been asked that. When recreating the set for the All Valley Tournament during season one, we had that banner that you see from the 1984 tournament where this being the 50th All Valley, the organizers are going all out. And you see other banners with other fighters. The guys and I were very thoughtful with the art department in picking who are we seeing? What age do they look like? They can’t be doing something that seems like it’s not era appropriate. I think we maybe saw one other one on screen and it was during the opening Queen song montage. But we haven’t thought storylines yet obviously in terms of is there another karate kid story that happened that experienced its own parallel universe, but that’s not to say something like that couldn’t happen down the road a little bit.
The epic season 2 finale fight, which is still my Avengers: Infinity War, when you did that, was the issue of violence in high school a tricky, sensitive balance?
Schlossberg: I think that we talk on this show a lot about violence and kids and school because it’s such a disturbing subject that’s actually going on in the world and in this country. I think there is a balance there of not avoiding things. but also not taking you out of a Karate Kid movie or something that would have the feel of that. What we wanted to do is show that there are consequences. It’s not just, ‘Oh, okay, you kick this guy down the stairs and you’re the winner.’ In the real world, when you resort to violence, and that is what karate is even in self-defense, it can backfire. It can lead to all sorts of problems. So it’s a delicate balance, but it’s one that we think is necessary. You just try to keep it in a way that still feels within the world of our show.
You did tease that spin-offs could be possible on Netflix. Have you thought about which characters you might spin off?
Hurwitz: We have put thought into spin-off ideas. We love just The Karate Kid universe, love all the characters from back in the day and we love the characters we’ve created. It’s hard for me to give you an exact answer to this, but what I can say is that we have a list of at least five different scenarios that we would pursue, that we could consider. Now, some of them are untraditional. Some of them are unlike any kind of spin-off you’ve ever seen before. But, every time we’re writing episodes of the show, we’re falling in love with the characters that we’re creating and examining characters from the past. Within the world of Cobra Kai, there are certain things that you can explore and certain things that don’t fit into that particular box, but there may be opportunities down the road to break out one of these characters and get to know them better or to explore different times in characters’ lives or what have you.
On YouTube, you really made the most of your budget every episode, every season. Now that you’re on Netflix, could season 4 have more resources for fights and other things you may not have been able to do?
Heald: We haven’t gotten into the nitty gritty of that because we haven’t needed to. We’ve always been very, very mindful of our budget and taking steps to write within our budget and stretch it as far as we can. At times in the past, that’s meant filming two units at the same time or finding ways of saving in one episode so you can go bigger in the next. We’re not trying to be the houseguests who come to Netflix and start getting too comfortable too soon in terms of, ‘Oh, that’s nice, we’re going to have that room too.’ I think if we’re fortunate to go forward more, we’re going to continue to do what we do, which is write economically and have big visions and rely on our production partners to help us bring those visions to fruition. But I can say we always want to grow the show bigger and with the amount of characters we now have in this universe, it naturally has expanded well beyond the scope of where it started back in season one.
Could Johnny and Daniel actually be friends if they just got out of their own way?
Schlossberg: I absolutely think that there is the potential for friendship between Johnny and Daniel. The question is, will there still be rivalry and ill will? Because the two things aren’t always mutually exclusive. I think in the first two seasons, you see the potential, but you also see the stumbling blocks. In some ways, that may be all it can ever be or maybe there’s a way to get over those issues. I think we certainly want them to, but we also want to be true to life and relationships. You can forgive but you really can’t forget. The past is etched in stone and what happened happened. So you can get over it, but there may still be something that lingers. We’ll see how that plays out as the show continues.
Daniel had three love interests in three movies. How did you create the woman who would be his wife?
Schlossberg: I think it started as a discussion of where Daniel is present day. I think we felt that Daniel would be living in some version of a happily ever after. At least that’s what we wanted. Had there not been a Karate Kid II or III you might have thought, ‘Okay, Daniel and Ali were together forever,’ but there was obviously a Part II and then a Part III. We were open to all possibilities. I think we just wanted a situation in his life that we could relate to, that seemingly on the surface had it all which would fuel Johnny’s jealousy and anger. We wanted him to be married to somebody that was, from the outside, looked like a great match, a great marriage. I think when we started thinking about who he would have ended up with, it would be somebody that has a good heart but not necessarily somebody who knows anything about karate or the tournaments. We like the idea of having a character that was not a part of those movies and so is a little bit in the dark on certain things that the audience is aware of and also looks at Johnny and Daniel the way a lot of people would, which is, ‘Why don’t you just end this nonsense?’ So I think it started there. It started with, we want Amanda to be somebody who’s a good person, the right fit for Daniel, but also somebody that wasn’t a part of this whole Karate Kid Miyagi world growing up, so she would have that kind of outside perspective.
Someone asked Jon on Twitter about Back to the Future. Do you guys have a Cobra Kai style idea for the Back to the Future universe?
Hurwitz: We’ve gotten in trouble in the past when we talk about our Back to the Future desires. Maybe we have a little more of a leg to stand on than we did back when we were just the Harold and Kumar guys. What I can say is we love the Back to the Future universe as much as we love the Karate Kid universe. Those characters equally were a part of our lives and continue to be a part of our lives. We know that the team that has made the Back to the Future movies seems to have little interest in continuing in that world and we respect that. As long as they feel that way, there’s really nothing to be done. If they ever change their minds and happen to check out Cobra Kai and like what we did with this in the world of Karate Kid, then we would be well prepared for any meetings that we would have going forward.
I hope you can prevail on them that it could be as good as Cobra Kai.
Schlossberg: They’re very similar franchises in so many ways with this kind of older character with a younger character as your two leads. There’s the same nostalgia associated. They came out around the same time. There’s a lot of possibilities there, but I also think we understand if we were the people creating a franchise, and we were a part of something, especially given Michael J. Fox’s situation with his health, we totally understand the logic of just saying, “Hey, that was a great trilogy back in the day.” I’m sure, regardless of what anybody’s demands are, 100 years from now, 200 years from now, it’s such a great story, it will be remade in some sort of way in the distant future. We don’t need to make that because we’re just fans and we can just imagine it in our minds if that’s what it ends up being.
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