Why Cobra Kai Isn’t Called The Karate Kid, and 4 More Things to Know About the New Series

All 10 episodes of the first season debut today on YouTube Red

Before making Cobra Kai, William Zabka and Ralph Macchio reunited to make a music video for a No More Kings song called "Sweep the Leg." Photographed by Axel Dupeux for Adweek at Seido Karate NYC
Headshot of Jason Lynch

This week’s cover story looked at the Karate Kid revival series Cobra Kai, which YouTube Red hopes will be a breakout hit like House of Cards was for Netflix. All 10 episodes of the first season roll out on YouTube today—the first two are available for free; the rest will require a subscription to YouTube Red. And the show’s creators, along with stars Ralph Macchio, who played LaRusso in three Karate Kid films, and William Zabka, who portrayed his nemesis Johnny Lawrence in two movies, shared details about the new show with us.

What’s in a name?

Unlike most other recent revivals—including The X-Files, Twin Peaks: the Return, and Will & Grace—the series doesn’t incorporate Karate Kid into its title. Instead, it takes its name from Johnny’s karate dojo in the first film, which he reopens during the series.

As a title, “Cobra Kai just stood out,” said Jeff Frost, president, Sony Pictures Television. “It was something that was so emblematic of what the show was and what the original movie was. It was also fresh and young, and it was a new take on this concept.”

Plus, noted Hayden Schlossberg, who created Cobra Kai with longtime pals Jon Hurwitz and Josh Heald, “it’s cool to see the show that already had the built-in logo”—from the Cobra Kai dojo—“and the logo is the most badass, evil-looking snake of all time.”

Keeping nostalgia in check

While the entire first season of Cobra Kai features callbacks to the Karate Kid films, especially the first movie, when it came to determining how much nostalgia to include in the series, “the word that we kept coming back to was ‘restrained,’” said Heald.

Since The Karate Kid’s release in 1984, “through the years it has been dealt with more comedically than non-comedically,” Heald continued. “It’s been parodied. We’ve heard the song ‘You’re the Best Around’ used for comedic effect in lots of silly things, and there were those one-liners and references in the movie that are on T-shirts. So we knew that there was all of that low-hanging fruit, and we knew we wanted to not grab it.”

Their determination: “When there was something that was really referencing the movies or a little Easter egg here and there, it had to really come from the story. It had to feel like it belonged in this show and that we weren’t crafting a scene around something that was aimed at saying, ‘Ha-ha, you see? From Karate Kid!’” said Heald. “It was important to us that this can stand on its own two legs, but we used the movie as the history.”

Creative control

Zabka said that one of the reasons he usually turned down offers to appear in projects that referenced Karate Kid was that he wasn’t sure how they would turn out. “I think mostly it’s about feeling safe, that you’re in good hands, because you never know what it’s going to look like when they cut it, and how they’re going to use you,” he said.

So when the actor was approached a decade ago to appear in a music video for a song called “Sweep the Leg” by No More Kings, “I said the only way that I would feel comfortable doing that is if you let me write it and direct it, and I’ll try to get the original guys back.”

That’s what happened, and Zabka was joined by original costars Macchio and Martin Cove (who played Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese):

“I was nervous putting it out there, and it was just so well received,” said Zabka, who became more open to revisiting his Karate Kid past after that experience. “It went from a glance over my shoulder, to an about-face, to actually walking into it.”

Red wedding

Cobra Kai’s team had talks with Netflix, Hulu and TBS about the series, but ultimately headed down the aisle with YouTube Red. The show’s creators said they were excited about YouTube’s reach—the site has more than 1.5 billion monthly logged-in YouTube viewers. “Especially in an age where there’s a thousand new shows coming out, you’re lucky to have people watch the first few episodes of your show. We felt like this is a place where you can just type ‘Cobra Kai’ in the search bar, and it’s there,” said Schlossberg.

“I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know how everybody is going to be shelling out $10 a month for five different outlets."
Ralph Macchio

Still, Macchio wonders how many more OTT services are going to be able to thrive, especially with others like Apple preparing to enter the fold.

“I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know how everybody is going to be shelling out $10 a month for five different outlets,” said Macchio. “But at this point, it’s creating another platform where you could reach a wide variety of people—and who gets more eyeballs every day than YouTube?”

Sore subject

While Macchio and Zabka perform some of their martial arts moves from the films in Cobra Kai, they said it’s much harder to recover than it was three decades ago. “From the next morning until 48 hours later you’re like, why is this happening? Why can’t I turn to the left? You don’t bounce back as easily,” said Macchio. “You’ve got to stretch a lot.”

Another issue for Macchio is that, as he pointed out, “I’ve never been built like an athlete. Part of the charm of Daniel LaRusso is he really had no business winning anything. And that’s the beauty of that role. He represented the every kid next door and that was part of the wish fulfillment and the aspirational part of why you rooted for that character.”

Then again, Macchio said he wasn’t the only Karate Kid character who didn’t fight gracefully onscreen: “With all due respect to my partner and friend—the late, great Pat Morita [who played Mr. Miyagi]—he wasn’t Bruce Lee, either!”

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.