We Sweep the Leg with One of The Minds Behind YouTube’s Hit ‘Karate Kid’ Revival
The Karate Kid was the first movie I ever watched on a VCR. I was 10 years old and in the first year of living with my dad in New Paltz, NY. As a native Long Islander, “Upstate” was a vacation destination, not a place of permanent residence. I was a stranger in a strange land up there. And with a healthy case of ADHD keeping me down, it wasn’t easy for me to make friends, which made me highly susceptible to bullying. I had quite a few assholes on my case, especially when I reached 4th grade that fall.
However, watching The Karate Kid at the Youth Center I’d go to after school finally gave me someone with whom I can empathize in Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso. I didn’t learn karate from a wise sensei in my hood like the hero in Robert Mark Kamen’s teenage kung-fu saga, which would go on to become one of the most successful film franchises of the 80s. But I did feel vicariously empowered by watching Daniel LaRusso crane-kick his nemesis Johnny Lawrence into oblivion at the end of the film.
The YouTube Original television series Cobra Kai takes everything we learned from The Karate Kid films and turns them on its head. Yet that’s exactly what makes the show such must-see TV in 2019. William Zabka returns to his career-defining role of Johhny Lawrence by playing him in a light that commands more sympathy than scorn. LaRusso ascends to local star status in the San Fernando Valley following his 1984 victory at the All Valley Karate Championship. He becomes a happy family man with a successful car dealership. Lawrence lives a shiftless life as a divorced dad estranged from his son. He has an unquenchable thirst for cheap beer. But he seeks a path to redemption by reopening the Cobra Kai dojo and making it a place for the bullied to learn how to fight back.
Johnny is still a jerk. But in this series, Zabka portrays him beautifully. We get to see all the dimensions, for better or for worse, of this character we’ve grown attached to in these last 35 years.
His heart is true, but it’s at conflict with the “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy” credo that his evil old sensei, John Creese, embedded into him. Creese slithers his way back into the Cobra Kai fold in Season 2. Yet Lawrence still wants to do better for the students (with whom he has an uneasy but endearing rapport), to overcome his alcoholism, and to navigate the volatile yet oddly brotherly bond he shares with LaRusso. His character makes Cobra Kai one of the best Internet television series of the streaming age.
Thanks to some unlikely familial connections (he went to high school with my cousin John) BFG had the rare opportunity to speak with one of the show’s creators, New Jersey’s own Jon Hurwitz, about the inner workings of this incredible show, which leaves longtime fans hanging with a major swerve leading into Season 3.
Zabka’s portrayal of modern day Johnny Lawrence is not that of a bully but a flawed antihero, a la Don Draper or Jamie Lannister. Was that always the route you wanted to go with him?
That was the goal. When I was in high school I nicknamed Billy Zabka ‘80s Asshole’. I was obsessed with his performances in not only Karate Kid but Just One of the Guys and Back to School, because he always played this asshole character. And at first when you watch him, you view him as this villain who is so mean and scary. Then for me, as I got older, I began to view him in a more comedic fashion. He played a bully so many times in so many things, it started to become funny to me.
But I was also really into Billy Zabka as a performer. And I remember as we got older watching a special edition of The Karate Kid, and there was an interview with the cast where they were all talking about making the movie. Billy Zabka, at the time, was talking about, for him, his approach as an actor to that role of Johnny Lawrence was that he’s not the villain in his own story. He was just another kid in this high school, he had a girlfriend who broke up with him. He was going through a tough time and he had one year to make it work and turn things around. And then this kid comes to town and throws a wrench into all of it. He was just trying to do his best, and this guy comes in and wrecks it all.
When we saw that, we were in our early twenties and thought how fascinating it would be to do a movie at the time about Johnny Lawrence as he got older and approach the questions of what happens to a bully as he gets older? Are they actually a bully? Have people bullied them? These were the things that were floating around in our heads, and the idea of taking this character who has done bad things and explaining why he does bad things. Or why, from his perspective, these things aren’t bad; it’s something that’s interesting and complex, and being able to give this character this treatment is something we all enjoyed immensely.
And that’s how John Creese came into Johnny’s life, to fill a father figure void he never received growing up in his own house…
Completely. Our view was that Sensei Creese came in and, in a weird way, was helping Johnny through a tough time he was going through at home with his emotionally abusive stepfather. But at the same time, John Creese has his own flaws and his own baggage that he was bringing to the table and creating more damage to Johnny that perhaps he or anybody else realized.
It’s amazing to see the generational baggage among the Boomers, Gen X and the Millennials converge into this one television series, especially in the context of themes like bullying, defending yourself and redemption. Is redemption the main crux of the show?
Absolutely. We love the idea of redemption for characters who have made mistakes. You should have the opportunity to better yourself regardless of what time in your life you are in. To be able to have that opportunity is a huge thing.
That said, kids are kids but they have slightly different framing, and different generations parent their kids in different ways, and educate in different ways. What’s going on in the country at the time forms the perspective of young people. It’s easy to get angry because there’s a lot going on in society where it doesn’t matter what side you are on or what age you are.
At this point in life, a lot of people are just dumb and think they’re right about everything, and that only one point of view is the correct point of view. One of the things we’re trying to do on Cobra Kai is show perspective, both comedically and dramatically, that even if you disagree with somebody, hopefully you could understand where they come from and then have a more productive relationship that could lead to growth on both sides.
And that’s where you were coming from in the portrayal of the relationship between Johnny and Daniel throughout the series? It’s almost like they are related like weird cousins in some way, no?
You’re exactly right. And part of that comes from myself and Josh [Heald] and Hayden [Schlossberg], the three of us who make the show. When we reflect on our childhoods now, people I remember as bullies I’m now friends with on Facebook or on Twitter, or I crossed paths with them later in life. And even though we’re not close friends, there’s we share a history that allows us to look at the past in a weird, fond way. I don’t like the moments when particular kids bullied me, but as I got older, I also got to see them grow and watch who they’ve evolved to become. Then you consider the fact they’re reaching out on Facebook and writing nice notes or even going as far as to say, ‘Hey, I feel bad about how I acted in high school .’
I’ve done that in the past; there was one person I remember when I was in my early 20s I felt the need to just write to this person and say, ‘Hey man, I realize at one point I was a dick to you and I didn’t feel good about it.’ For that person, it was all water under the bridge, but for me, its like the way you put it; it’s almost like cousins or brothers or something. You can have a brother or cousin who you messed with or who messes with you but a shared history still binds you together. That goes for Johnny and Daniel, very clearly. These are guys who have had this interesting shared experience, and they’re not that much different in a lot of ways. So if it was a different world, they could even become friends.
The music on Cobra Kai is fantastic. It’s great how you’ve incorporated all these artists back into the Karate Kid Universe, and it remains modern on account of how much 80s music is back in vogue…
It’s a lot of fun, especially when you’re making a show like this that has such a wide audience, not only people in our age group but teenagers today, to incorporate these songs from the 80s that people like us are going to love in one particular way, and it’s an education to a whole new generation. The kids who act on our show are really getting into the music themselves. And like you said, some of those sounds are starting to come back. In fact, a couple of songs on the show sound like they’re from the 80s, but they’re not. People recorded them in the present day with an ‘85 vibe.
It must be wild to see how Cobra Kai has appealed across generations who normally are not such simpatico bedfellows.
Yeah, it’s very interesting. I work with people of all ages and you see that there’s a lot of common ground and then you’ll see the blind spots. Like with music, if you’re in this one specific window you got it, but if you’re three years this way or that way it didn’t hit you.
I’m still always amazed, though, with how the original movies resonated with audiences through the years.
Robert Mark Kamen, the writer of The Karate Kid, told a universally relatable story. These underdog stories, everyone has a little bit of underdog in them. And everyone has a bully in their life. Kamen captured it so beautifully in that film. It was uplifting for people all across the globe.