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'Cobra Kai' Looks At What Happened After 'The Karate Kid' Beat The School Bully

May 16, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 9:06 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

With these four little words...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KARATE KID")

PAT MORITA: (As Miyagi) Wax on, wax off.

CORNISH: ...We're off and running with the characters from the classic 1984 movie "The Karate Kid." This time, it's for a series on YouTube Red. Ralph Macchio and William Zabka are back now decades after their final karate showdown as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. Now they're middle-aged and stuck in the past. LaRusso owns a successful car dealership, karate chopping prices in half and giving out bonsai trees to customers. His high school bully has had 30 years of hitting rock bottom before returning to the dojo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COBRA KAI")

WILLIAM ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) Are you sure you're ready - 'cause once you go down this path, there's no turning back.

XOLO MARIDUENA: (As Miguel Diaz) Are you going to be my karate teacher?

ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) No.

CORNISH: Wait for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COBRA KAI")

ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) I'm going to be your sensei.

CORNISH: The series is called "Cobra Kai." It's written by Hayden Schlossberg, Jon Hurwitz and Josh Heald. I spoke with Hurwitz and Heald the other day about their reboot.

JON HURWITZ: For these particular characters, I think for Johnny Lawrence, he's been living his life, but he's been living his life in the shadow of Daniel LaRusso literally. Like, Daniel has become the auto king of the Valley and has billboards that are, like, right near his apartment building and commercials that are playing on the radio and on television every day of his life. So if he would have liked to have sort of forgotten that horrible karate tournament in his past, it's impossible where he currently lives.

And as for Daniel, you know, the way we joke about it in the show is that karate in the '80s was like football in Texas. It's like he's a legend because of that tournament - a local legend. And he's not even realizing that it feels like a gimmick. For him, it's just, like, genuinely sincere, and he has this love for this time in his life. And yeah, these two guys - they're still caught in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COBRA KAI")

ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) It was the summer of '82. "Rocky III" had just come out. My buddy Dutch was a huge Mr. T fan, so we went to the local theater to check it out.

CORNISH: I think that one of the fun parts of the series is this very kind of Rashomon-like approach where you see the same scenes from the movie that might be familiar - right? - in flashback, but they're told from a completely different point of view. And the basic plot of the original film was new kid comes to town, encounters a bully who knows karate. To fight back, he gets a mentor, learns karate and then wins the big tournament, right? And then the Johnny Lawrence character explains it a completely different way, right? It was new kid comes to town...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COBRA KAI")

ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) But then Daniel LaRusso came to town.

CORNISH: ...Steals my girlfriend...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COBRA KAI")

ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) The next thing I know, he's hitting on her. I see the two of them flirting with each other.

CORNISH: ...Beats me up, sucker punches me...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COBRA KAI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: ...Kind of humiliates me publicly in a massive tournament. And I actually found it convincing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COBRA KAI")

MARIDUENA: (As Miguel Diaz) What happened? Who won?

ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) LaRusso won. I lost. But what's worse is I lost Ali.

CORNISH: How did you go about approaching the alternate point of view? Did you go scene by scene and say, actually, if you think about it another way...

HURWITZ: This is Jon speaking. You know, we approached this alternate point of view by simply getting inside the head of Johnny Lawrence. And I think from...

CORNISH: So did you turn the sound off and, like, have a drink and then just kind of narrate the alternate universe?

HURWITZ: You know, we didn't exactly do that. But, you know, it was one of those things that - to tell you the truth, we still see Daniel LaRusso's side as well. So it's one of those things where, you know - we're comedy writers as well. And we've always talked about the Johnny Lawrence character sort of from a comedic point of view. And when you first start to approach the Johnny Lawrence character as sort of, like, the hero of his own story, you're twisting the story just a little bit here and there to make Johnny a little bit more sympathetic in those moments.

As a result of that, we added extra layers to that Johnny Lawrence character. We end up sort of seeing the troubles of his childhood. We see him discover karate for the first time. We figured out an array of ways to get the audience behind this character to understand this character in ways that you didn't get to see in the movie while also looking at that movie and re-editing it a little bit in our heads so that we understand the logic that Johnny Lawrence may have as to why he was in the right.

CORNISH: What is it about that period in time that looms large for people? I mean, I feel like this is why we're all on Facebook still checking out people that we went to high school with. You know, like, how can - what is it you wanted to say about the effects of kind of being stuck?

JOSH HEALD: I think - this is Josh - I think high school is a very, very volatile time for your emotional well-being, both good and bad. It's the time when you have first love. It's the time where the stakes of your life never seem so large because the blank page in front of you is just so blank in terms of where you could go and what every little decision feels like it springboards out to. That's just a commonality that - you know, that I've found in my life talking to other people, you know, reconnecting with people from high school. It's just - there's the movies you watch then, the music you listened to, the foods you eat, everything. You become nostalgic for that.

CORNISH: There are so many shows on right now that embrace nostalgia when I think of "Roseanne" or I think "Fuller House" (laughter) on Netflix, which is a play on "Full House," even "The X-Files." I mean, what makes it work to your mind, and when does it falter?

HEALD: You know, it's funny that - you know, you mentioned "Fuller House." That was a show that we remember seeing billboards for, and it's kind of charged us up thinking, like, OK, if Kimmy Gibbler can be on a billboard...

(LAUGHTER)

HEALD: ...Billy Zabka should be on a billboard. But for us, it was a matter of, how do we take this show that - this movie that we love and transform it into a different medium and make it this multiple-season series and not just continue to go to the nostalgic well? You know, we wanted to temper that. If we could create a new show, a new world set in the universe that that movie introduced and really rely on and lean on our two leads to be the anchors for that as opposed to window dressing, then we saw an opportunity to really have a show that was special and its own show.

CORNISH: In the end, it feels like you're essentially saying each one of us is the hero in our own story.

HEALD: That was the goal of this show. It was not meant to say, now Johnny Lawrence is the hero, and now Daniel LaRusso is the bad guy. When you're with Johnny, you're on team Johnny. When you're with Daniel, you remember, oh, yeah, Daniel's great; I'm with Daniel now. And we wanted to intentionally introduce that conflict all the way through the season where by the time you get to the end - we've heard it from, you know, from our friends, family. We've seen it in comments online. It's the I-don't-know-who-to-root-for, and there's real value in I-don't-know-who-to-root-for.

HURWITZ: This is Jon speaking. Not only does seeing the world through different perspectives lead to sort of the most interesting form of storytelling, but it's also something that I think is helpful in life. Taking every experience that you're having in life - and when you have conflict with somebody else, it's always helpful to take a step back and try to see the world through their eyes and put yourself in their shoes. And oftentimes you find out that everybody has their own problems. Everyone has their own challenges that they're going through. And rather than just sort of focus on, this person is sort of running directly opposed to, you know, how I'm feeling right now, try to understand each other, and hopefully you can progress in a more productive way.

CORNISH: Josh Heald and Jon Hurwitz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HEALD: Thank you very much for having us.

HURWITZ: It's our pleasure.

CORNISH: And "Cobra Kai" is now streaming on YouTube Red.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE THE BEST")

JOE ESPOSITO: (Singing) You're the best around. Nothing's going to ever keep you down. You're the best around. Nothing's going to ever keep you down. You're the best around. Nothing's going to ever keep you down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.