Is There Redemption for Johnny Lawrence? Cobra Kai Creators Discuss Their Favorite 80s Bully.
34 Years ago this summer The Karate Kid hit theaters to raves, becoming a childhood favorite and would remain in the pop culture lexicon for generations yet to come. Three of those super fans were three boys from Jersey (like hero Daniel LaRusso) named Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald. All future screenwriters who would venture to LA in their 20s, Hurwitz and Schlossberg would go on to create the Harold and Kumar franchise (and this year’s Blockers), Heald dreamed up the story for Hot Tub Time Machine; featuring the actor who brought The Karate Kid’s iconic bully to life, Billy Zabka.
It turns out Zabka was a key part of the appeal of The Karate Kid for all three. Hurwitz describes himself as having been “obsessed with Billy Zabka in high school” explaining that “My friends and I used to talk about Just One of the Guys all the time, and I went so far as to get fingerless gloves and would go around lifting lunch tables ironically. My freshman year of college I made a webpage dedicated to 80s assholes, dedicated to Billy’s 80s characters. That was one of many webpages I had back then, but there has been this obsession with what Billy did in those movies, the joy he seemed to take in bullying that was fascinating.” Hurwitz and Schlossberg had written a part for Zabka in the Harold and Kumar films, although that collaboration never came to fruition. It was around that the time when Johnny Lawrence was just beginning to be re-examined by adults raised on the film. There was Patton Oswalt’s humorous essay “The Johnny Lawrence Story” and the band “No More Kings” hit song “Sweep The Leg” as an ode to the misguided anti-hero (made even more popular with an elaborate music video directed by Zabka). And then there was How I Met Your Mother’s running joke regarding the character of Barney (Harold and Kumar’s Neil Patrick Harris) believing Johnny was the real hero of film, leading to an almost season long arc with Zabka playing himself (with cameos by Ralph Macchio).
On the appeal of a character which was revealed only as they matured, the writers explain that with age comes a better understanding of Lawrence as a human being. “When you are a kid in the 80s, you are living in Daniel’s shoes” says Schlossberg during an interview alongside his writing partners. “He’s the every kid in a lot of ways. And living through that character, it’s almost like Johnny’s your bully from high school. And the fact that Billy Zabka played that type of characters in a lot of films that were constantly playing on HBO, which cemented his reputation as our national bully.” Hurwitz, who says he “always wanted to work with Zabka on something” states while he and his cowriters initially “related to the Jersey boy getting bullied,” as they got older they “dreamed of doing a movie where we could revisit the character of Johnny.” But as time went by, with a remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan released, the possibility of revisiting the original characters in a new movie seemed unlikely. But then the television landscape changed with the evolution of streaming services and there were opportunities to further The Karate Kid story in long form. Heald explains the decision to focus on Johnny was logical because “Ralph made three movies so they had a chance to do a lot with that character. And with this we didn’t want to play in the same sandbox, we wanted to take the DNA that existed and explore some of the elements which were underexplored. So the Johnny side of the equation was this plethora of unexplored opportunity that was hiding in plain sight.”
So the three friends went to work on their dream job, the new Youtube Red series Cobra Kai. One of the major sources of inspiration proved to be an interview Zabka gave on the special edition release of The Karate Kid DVD where he explained the motivation he’d given the character when preparing to play him. But the three writers and Zabka imagined the character’s life today very differently. “We saw the Karate Kid special edition where he gave his take on the character” explains Heald. “It’s a difficult character to explore because he did have an arc and as Billy interprets it, that character made a huge step forward by handing the trophy to Ralph and realizing his sensei has led him down the wrong path. We had to present a character whose life hadn’t worked out the way he expected it to. And somewhere in there is where Billy’s ideas of Johnny and our ideas of Johnny found each other.”
“They painted him into a corner and degenerated him quite a bit” said Zabka at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere screening “I could never have seen it from their point of view because I always had these ideas about Johnny. They had this laser beam focus on what Johnny meant to them and they pinned it on me. And I received it but it was painful to hear that. I thought “he already said it was a good match, why would he open up the Cobra Kai again? He knows it’s his Pandora’s Box, it’s the snake that bit him.” But I had to let go and trust them, and let go of about 98% of the thoughts I had about where Johnny would be today.” Schlossberg explained that “the difference between our approach and Billy’s approach is, we have to think about what the audience expects and Billy’s thinking of the backstory and motivations he’d created for the character. We know that the collective, pop culture memory on this landscape is seeing him first and foremost as a bully. And now we have to make this bully from your high school l into someone relatable.”
Hurwitz however sees some similarities with that original interpretation. “I think that Billy always felt that Johnny would be the type of person who lived with a lot of regrets” explained Jon, “So that lined up with how we viewed the character. What took him by surprised was the idea that he would deal with those regrets by re-opening Cobra Kai.”
As for those degenerate tendencies, the show opens with Lawrence living in a broken down apartment complex, drinking heavily throughout the day, and is completely absent from his own teenage son’s life. Early on we also learn that the life of luxury he seemed to have in the original film was provided by his abusive stepfather (played by Ed Asner). Regarding the characteristics, they choose to give older but no-wiser Johnny, Schlossberg explains “we wanted to do an underdog story, see him as someone who’s down and out and Daniel has his life together and become the Auto King of The Valley. Kids who were bullies often have bullies at home. That’s where Ed Asner’s character Sid sprung from. After that kick to the head and having a bad home life, it made sense that his future wouldn’t have gone down a positive road. He might make some of the same mistakes. He might not be a good father, considering we don’t know what happened to his birth father, he had a bad stepfather and his surrogate father Sensei Kreese essentially tried to murder him at the beginning of the second film. This is a man with a lot of issues with fatherhood. Felt to us that a dude like him would have started drinking a lot in college and would have continued down that path if he was already having problems.”
In response to that last comment Heald adds “in Johnny’s world, whiskey and beer are seen as an acceptable way to deal with issues in a masculine way.” And the show, which walks the line between comedy and drama surprisingly well, uses Johnny’s struggles with masculinity to mine a fair amount of humor. Josh says “there is something funny to us about seeing that 80s macho mentality today. Johnny is trying to impart this wisdom on a new generation.” The films of the 80s were filled with often extreme representations of masculinity, and The Karate Kid was the teen version. “It was part of a genre of film from the 80s that had a very masculine, adrenaline spirit” reminds Hayden “Like the Rocky films, Top Gun, we even mention Iron Eagle a couple of times in the show. And in some ways, this is a show that pays tribute to those films that had training montages and were stories about boys becoming men as they gain strength. But we saw the comedy of guy trapped in that mindset dealing with present-day society. It lends itself to a kind of generational comedy. It fun to explore our current culture, where people from our generation are criticizing millennials for being snowflakes, how a macho guy like this would deal with teenagers.”
As the series features a cast of teens, the evolving bullying culture is explored in the show, including how girls can be as guilty of bullying as their male counterparts and impact of online bullying. Asked how Johnny would see modern day online bullies at Tribeca Hurwitz joked “he’d think they’re losers. He thought there was some kind of chivalry back in his day. He didn’t hide behind an aviator.” But with the show now largely focusing on a teen bully’s adulthood, the show had to commit not to simply disapproving of bully’s behavior but actually exploring the root cause of bullying. They repeated that the theme of the show that “everyone has a bully in their life and everyone’s capable of being a bully.” Even a LaRusso.
As for Ralph Macchio’s role in the series, he was understandably cautious of returning to the character 30 years after filming The Karate Kid Part III. And while his life isn’t the mess Johnny’s is, he is a character still living somewhat in the light of his past glory. The creators note that while his Karate/Bonsai promoted car dealership is somewhat cheesy (including ridiculous commercials and billboards Johnny can’t get away from), his love of Miyagi Karate (and the no deceased Mr. Miyagi) is sincere… he doesn’t even realize that those unaware of his Under-18 All Valley Tournament two time win might see his themed dealership as a gimmick. Schlossberg explains that the show does exist within the alternate universe in which at least in The Valley, “karate is the biggest sport there is, like football towns in Texas.” Although Heald’s first (unproduced) screenplay Eat This (about competitive eaters) was a direct homage to The Karate Kid (with a main character named Danny CaRusso), unlike Zabka the writers didn’t know Ralph Macchio before pitching the show to him. But after meeting with them Macchio claimed to have been won over by their obsessive knowledge of the films “it’s their Star Wars, they know more about the films than I do.”
Because of the cultural impact and fandom surrounding the film(s), where and how to use the nostalgia people have for the original films had to be carefully curated. The show was given access to dailies from the original film, allowing them to use different, unseen footage of the iconic final shot (as well as recreating some footage). The show also added pre-Karate Kid flashbacks (and plan to show what happened in the 34 year gap should the show get picked up for additional seasons). While the four films featuring the late Pat Morita are considered canon in the Cobra Kai universe, Schlossberg explains they were cautious of throwing in too many references. “There is an awesome, fun feeling of revisiting these things. But you can always go watch the original movies. We wouldn’t have spent all this time on this unless we saw a larger purpose. And a lot of these themes the original dealt with we’re still dealing with today. And it was interesting to look at those current issues with that 1980s lens. When you can use footage to evoke a totally new feeling that is pretty cool. That’s the best way to use nostalgia.