When a series was announced that would continue the story of The Karate Kid, it was hard not to excuse it as just another reboot. But little did we know that Cobra Kai series creators, Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg had a secret up their sleeves – and no, it’s not the crane kick. Now, three seasons, millions of fans, and several Emmy nominations later (including Outstanding Comedy Series) it is hard not to acknowledge just how much of a success the show is.
Heald and Schlossberg sat down with Awards Radar to reveal just what their secret is, along with their goals for the show, how working through COVID affected the process, what to expect with season four, and much, much more. If you already love Cobra Kai, you will appreciate the passion conveyed for the series and the film that inspired it. If you do not already love the show, then you probably are not watching yet. You can catch up on all three seasons of the series on Netflix before the season four premiere later this year.
Steven Prusakowski: Congrats on the Emmy nomination. How did that feel? And how did the cast and the team react to the honor.
Hayden Schlossberg: Thank you. It was great. I think we knew that we had a shot because of the popularity the show got from Netflix. At the same time, you’re never sure, it’s so out of your control. There’s so many shows. We just kind of watched, not assuming anything. And when it happened, it was just a fun moment for everybody who’s been involved. It’s actually very special just because of the journey that the show’s been on from its early YouTube days. Usually you don’t get that kind of boost, three seasons into your show. It’s great to have that.
Steven Prusakowski: It’s a unique situation and it’s great to see it. Instead of fading away, it is actually finding a new life – a bigger, bolder life at that.
I’m sure you came here to tell all of your Cobra Kai secrets to Steve Prusakowski of Awards Radar, so I’ll get the show’s biggest secrets out of the way really quick. Who dies this season? Who was on the phone? Will Hillary Swank show up and then end up fighting Amanda? What’s the biggest surprise we can expect? What episode will Stingray return? And when he does, will he still have beers taped to his hands? If you can answer all of those really quickly I’d really appreciate it.
Josh Heald: We’re not going to answer any of that. So we can move on to the next.
Steven Prusakowski: I figured that. I didn’t expect an answer. Those are just a few of the things that the fans are dying to know and can’t wait to have those answers revealed.
Josh Heald: We love the questions. The fact that there are so many questions means there are fans and fan engagement. It means that we’ve done our job to leave things unresolved. There’s a pleasure being like a scientific professor in the lab kind of pouring things in the beaker and getting things to bubble just the right way before they completely spill over that we try to accomplish in the writers room. We want them to be anchored. We want them to be curious. We want them to have expectations and anxiety. We know those are all good feelings to bring with you to a story that is not yet resolved. We’re very protective over our secrets because of that, because we don’t want to ever spoil the fan experience of being able to watch it on day one.
Steven Prusakowski: Honestly, I wouldn’t want the answers. I hate spoilers and I love experiencing it. So if you started telling me anything I would have turned off your mics and stopped the interview. But yeah, it’s great to have that amount of fan passion for the characters and the storylines. It’s gone beyond many initial expectations. When I would discuss the series early on, that it’s connected to the Karate Kid, many people felt that it’s just a nostalgia show. But no, it’s so much more than that. You’re taking some bold swings, and really exploring characters in ways that engage the viewers. As a viewer, you care about Johnny, you care about Danny, and you care about all these kids. And that’s great to see and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. So, how did the show originate? Was there an epiphany moment where you just like we have an idea let’s make it happen or was it something that evolved over time?
Hayden Schlossberg: It started with our love of the movie and talking about it and talking about Johnny and the Cobra Kai’s over the course of years. The seeds were laid back in the 1990s when we joked about how crazy it was that there was a character in a movie that had to deal with this karate gang in high school. Then Johnny as the leader. He was like Spike in the Gremlins. He was just this standout. Kind of an 80s villain and William Zabka had been in a bunch of other movies where he played that kind of role.
So Billy Zabka has been on our minds for decades. So much so that John and I, when we did one of Harold and Kumar movies, we wanted him to be involved in it. It didn’t end up working out. When Josh had Hot Tub Time Machine, he reached out to Billy and he was in his movies. It all comes from a place of loving The Karate Kid – loving Cobra Kai. And then we had talked way back before there were Netflix original shows or anything like, about a movie version of The Karate Kid. Like Cobra Kai you would be seeing it from Johnny’s perspective. We knew that somebody, like Johnny, set in the present day could be an underdog, because a lot of times those types of kids peak in high school. We love the idea of having Johnny as an underdog and Daniel, as somebody who is in a much better place in life.
So that story we had been talking about for almost 20 years. We always thought of it in movie terms, because it was a movie, and we were screenwriters working on movies, and the feature version of that back in 2005 or 2010. It’s so tough to get a movie made with star power and it just didn’t seem likely, especially when the Jaden Smith version of the movie came out. Then right around 2015, Netflix was really cranking out shows. We saw something like Fuller House, and we realized, ‘Oh, you know what those are characters from a show that was years ago. And look, it’s on billboards and Netflix is really promoting it.’ That kind of got the idea of going about a series, and that was kind of the catalyst from that point on.
Steven Prusakowski: So what were some of your initial goals for the series and have they evolved since day one? Or once you were given the green light, since you’ve been talking about it for years, were you set in your ways?
Josh Heald: A little of both. Season One, it was very, very baked, we knew exactly what we were going to do down to the final frame of the season. We were able to cast the younger characters in a way that really told the story that was going to evolve. For instance, the role of Eli/Hawk. If we had just been talking about, ‘Oh, Miguel has a couple of guys at his lunch table, who aren’t the popular kids in school,’ and we hadn’t yet really fully figured out what was happening with them, that we would have been relying on somebody who can play that kind of weak-willed, insecure character to fully blossom into Hawk. But because we knew exactly where we were going, we were able to provide scenes from an early episode and scenes from a much later episode, even though we hadn’t gotten into production yet.
We were able to say, this is where we’re going in the first season, this is where we’re going in the series. We were able to have a lot of those conversations with the performers. I think it helps them get their sea legs in a way. For instance, Tanner Buchanan‘s character, Robbie, has a little bit of intentional short shrift in the first half of the first season. He’s this guy who is a little bit on the periphery. We understand that Johnny screwed up – that relationship is not great. He’s with the wrong crowd and then it unravels in the second half of the season where that character really comes to light. You start seeing what a good influence does. We really played a very careful game that first season, especially in making sure that this felt like a natural extension of the film franchise. We wanted to be very mindful of every angle.
We filmed the architecture that tied into the valley of using locations from the movie when possible, and not being exploitative with Karate Kid easter eggs. There was a long plan for where the series evolves and how we wanted to behave as such, and not ‘we’re doing it all at once.’ As the seasons evolved we’ve largely stayed on the plan we’ve set out. Certain storylines always shift. We’ve had storylines shift out of the first season that have landed in a later season. Once the story has expanded, like the balloon that it has, and the cast has grown to the place that is now there’s inevitably new branches on a tree that you thought were maybe a little twig, and then they end up being an entire trunk by the time you really dig in.
Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, it’s great how patient you have been because I’ve seen a lot of attempts at reboots and reimaginings that seemed to throw it all at the fan, giving them all the fan service upfront. Once you do that, then there’s nowhere to go. You have really honed in on the characters and set up these character arcs that are continuing strong three seasons in. That’s one reason the series has really surprised me. Also, the show’s tone is so unique – balance between the humor and drama was something that I did not anticipate.
Hayden Schlossberg: We knew going into it that it was gonna be the most dramatic thing that we’ve ever worked on. That’s coming from one of the creators of Harold and Kumar and Josh worked on a Hot Tub Time Machine. So we’re working on pretty R-rated and semi-absurdist comedy. I would say that we always strive to be grounded and always cared about the characters in those movies. That’s why you had both movies that were over 90 minutes long and sequels because we cared about those characters in that kind of crazy, weird, silly tone.
We knew that for this to feel like The Karate Kid, it had to feel like The Karate Kid and The Karate Kid wasn’t absurdist. Now, there is a kind of meta-absurdity to this show, which is that 30 years later, 40 years later, these characters are still at each other’s throats over this karate rivalry. But we play it, very straight within each character storyline. It’s only when a character like Amanda gets involved that you can kind of see the absurdist perspective of it. We really treat it like karate was their big – the big sport in the valley in the 80s. And this was their high school football game. This was Friday Night Lights for them. For Johnny, he was on this upward trajectory, and this pivotal moment in his life led to a downward spiral. And for Daniel, it led to glory. You’re meeting those characters present day. We treat it as real as possible. The more grounded and real we treat it, the more there are fun, comedy possibilities along the way. Our comedy instincts are always going to be with us. We always see the fun in the rivalry. But we know that it’s about mentors and students and life lessons. As we love comedy, we also love the story of The Karate Kid.
I think we came into the show feeling that if this is gonna be successful, it’ll have to be more dramatic than what we’ve done. We’ll have scenes that are not just about a joke, but that are really heartfelt. As the show has gone on, I think what we’ve learned is. You just kind of go where the song takes you. Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it’s in between. I would say that this show, more than most, has the most dramatic tonal swings in an episode. We can go to one place that seems like it’s completely comedic, like a real funny montage and then also see Miguel getting kicked off the balcony at the end of season two, which is meant to be as dramatic as any hour long drama season finale. So, you have it all. And we’ve earned the ability to go to all those places. You have to be careful as you’re telling the story not to undercut the drama with comedy. Then you also have to be careful not to get too bogged down in trauma that you’re just like, okay, where’s the fun in this? In fact, The Karate Kid was a fun movie back in the day. So we’re always trying to do it all, I guess.
Steven Prusakowski: You’re doing a great job with it. How was it getting the team back together? Was it a difficult task to pull in some of the cast? And if Ralph or Billy says no, is that it, you cancel it, there’s no Cobra Kai? Or is there a different variation of the show that you could have done?
Josh Heald: If Ralph or Billy said no, there’ll be no show. I mean, we sold the show based on them saying yes. Then Sony said, ‘Great, go get them.’ Speaking with Billy about it was relatively easy, because we already knew him and we had a shorthand. We knew that this would be a character exploration that he would really enjoy. Whereas Ralph was somebody we didn’t know yet. What we did know was that he was very guarded and protective of The Karate Kid legacy and the Daniel Russo character and had largely said no to reprising that role in any form over the years. When someone would want to do a cameo on my show and put the headband back on, Ralph was not the first person to card out the Daniel Russo character and say, ‘Here I am, remember me, The Karate Kid?’ We knew we had a little bit of a hill climb there, but we lead the same way we lead with everybody, which was just very, very earnestly talking about where these characters are in their lives as we’ve explored and why it’s different. But also why it has the same fields and why it can go to new places that have not been mined. So it doesn’t feel like The Karate Man – it’s the same thing except you’re older. Both of those guys really got invested in the story that we wanted to tell, asked great questions, added their own perspective and their own color to it. From there on, it was not hard to involve any of the other franchise characters. There was a real rah-rah sense of enthusiasm of ‘I want to be part of this. I see what you’re doing.’ And we’re off to the races.
Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, the Billy’s Zabka work is just incredible. I think he’s a comedic genius. His delivery is just so spot on. It sounds like a cliche, but we really had to pause because we were laughing so much. He’s that funny. And, I’m tough on comedy, because I don’t just laugh at everything. So what he’s doing is, in my opinion, just fantastic. How much of that is stuff that he brought to the table? And how much of that is the script?
Hayden Schlossberg: Yeah. It’s tough, because both he and Ralph are great on the show. So, when it comes to these Emmy noms, you have got two of them there and I think they should both be nominated. With Billy, I think it’s a combination of how we thought his character would be in the present day and then Billy’s own ability to be that. Billy was actually, early on, a little bit resistant, because he has for years been identified with these bully roles in the 80s. He probably would want Johnny to be a little bit more reformed. We quickly told him, ‘Listen, there’s a lot of comedy in taking that character as people remember him, and bringing him into the modern day.’ When he embraced that, then all of that fun that he brought to those roles came out. It’s fun to see him use that power and give it to these underdog kids who could actually use some of some of those skills – even though it sets them down a bad path at times. It’s fun.
In the early days, we talked about, if we didn’t have the IP of Karate Kid, it would be called Bad Sensei – like Bad Teacher. It would be a teacher who probably shouldn’t be with kids. But, at the end of the day, he’s got his own skills, and what he’s teaching them is better than nothing. He learns from them as much as they learn from him. And it’s fun taking that archetypal 80s bully and bringing it into modern day. It’s similar to what Michael Myers did with the Austin Powers character – the 60s sexual liberation character in the 1990s. We love that kind of un-PC character in today’s world, that’s walking on eggshells, who does have the right terms. He’s coming in like Crocodile Dundee kicking his feet up on the table, and has no idea what anybody’s talking about. He just knows his way. It’s fun and true to the character. And yet, it brings a comedy that the original film didn’t have. It’s a combination of him going all in with that, and us knowing that his character today would provide a lot of comedy.
Steven Prusakowski: So are there any other classic series or films that you are fond of that you’d like to take on with a similar approach?
Josh Heald: We don’t really sit and look at a list of films or say, ‘hey let’s do this.’ We think about tone, story and really what’s there. There are so many classics that we grew up with. I could give you a list of 10 films, some of which, you might say, ‘Oh, what if, we jump back into the world with these characters.’ Some of which really feel like that story was told already and we would be kind of redoing it just to play in that playground. We’re always looking for what interesting stories there are to tell that feel like that era or that we can explore. Johnny Lawrence, for instance, is a very refreshing character in a lot of ways. He has a lot of his caveman mentalities – the fact that he grew up in the 80s and never left that behind. We look to characters like that as an example. We thought this would work and that works. What else can we tell that might have that kind of feel? We’ve learned a lot about what tonally is working storywise and what is working with this series. We look at all IP, and we look at all original ideas and judge them the same way. Is there a real multi-season story arc worth continuing and evolving that can have cliffhangers that an audience can really go after? We challenge ourselves to do that, whether it’s looking at another property or not.
Steven Prusakowski: So what’s the series secret sauce? Why do you think fans love it so much?
Hayden Schlossberg: I think because we love it, because we care. The reason that tonal shifts work is because we like them. And when I say ‘we’ – we are three fans. So we’re just a little test audience of what the ultimate audience will be. There’s times where we talk about something, and it’s really, really funny, but we don’t put it into the show, because it takes away from the drama of it. But then there are other times where it’s so funny, and we think we could buy it. If we think that way, then the audience will think that way.
The show hits these really fun, comedic moments, and yet captures the heart – it’s a twist on the karate kid. I mean, it’s Johnny becomes Mr. Miyagi. And with that is a whole set of comedy that you didn’t have in The Karate Kid. There’s also heart – there is that teacher student bond. And then, because it’s a series, we expanded it to Daniel, and all the kids. We give each character their own kind of world and underdog issue that they’re going through. There’s a lot of rooting interest so that by the time you’re in season two or season three, we built up so much that you can have a really epic fight that’s not just cool to look at, but where there’s dramatic stakes. There are multiple storylines that you’re caring about all culminating in martial arts. And so it’s funny.
We joked about it in our very first pitch. When we pitched it around town, we said it was a karate opera. We meant in the way George Lucas said Star Wars is a space opera. It’s a little ridiculous, but yeah, it’s a soap opera – every episode ends with a cliffhanger. Every season finale ends with a big huge thing that makes you want to propel into the next one. It’s got all the fun of and watch-ability of a soap opera and everything that Netflix likes with their binge ability. Yet, it’s tied into something that everybody remembers and cares about – by everybody, I mean a generation remembers and cares about. It’s got everything that a good show has but a little something extra special because of those memories.
Steven Prusakowski: Was there ever a moment in the show that you felt like you went a little too far or maybe where you didn’t go far enough? You didn’t trust your initial instincts and when you watch it back you think, ‘Man, we should have done this joke, or we should have created this moment?”
Josh Heald: No, I can’t think of anything. We’ve never stopped talking about the show. John Hayden and I worked literally hip to hip for years now. And when we’re in production, we live together, and we don’t stop talking about it – at lunch and dinner and breakfast. And even when we wake up and we drive to work together we’re still talking about it. So this is a story that we’ve looped back on ourselves, we write we rewrite, we write on set, we write in post production at times to really make sure that everything is working.I don’t think we’ve ever put anything out there on a show that we look back on and go, you know, we should have, we should have done this because that would have really helped us out with this jam. It’s all been fairly well constructed with just no shaky walls there that I can think of.
Hayden Schlossberg: The challenge is usually just trying to fit things into 10 episodes. But, the great thing about a TV show is if we can’t fit it in, you could always find another place for it in another season.
Steven Prusakowski: That’s really impressive – it’s a well-designed machine. You know to fit in each season – where you’ll start to where these things end up. So what can we expect for Season Four? Is there anything you can give fans – a little teaser? Or, you know, just just in terms of tone, or?
Hayden Schlossberg: Well, there’s an all Valley tournament, and there’s a lot at stake. Johnny and Daniel have teamed up. And, John Crease is determined to win. And Terry Silver, from Karate Kid Part Three is involved to add fuel, or gasoline, to the fire. And it’s gonna be really fun. Don’t want to get into any of the details beyond what’s already out there. All we could say is we set things up to have a really fun, awesome, showdown kind of season. We did our best to deliver on that. We just finished mixing the last episode. So we know that we’re done with season four, we’ve seen the beginning to end. And it’s just fun. It’s, it’s… we can’t wait. We’re frustrated for fans, we want them to see it right now. It’s the next entry and we don’t just veer off into another story and do something like that’s going to disappoint people, it’s going to pick up and just take off.
Steven Prusakowski: I love the idea that no matter the day, night, winter, spring, summer, fall, Cobra Kai is going on in your head? Is there ever a time that you can turn it off or is it constantly there? As a creator, once I’m working on an idea, I’ll be in the middle of the conversation and I’ll go into a zone thinking, I have got to write this down. Is that what it’s like for you?
Josh Heald: Yeah, I mean, we don’t stop thinking about it and talking about it. Or, if one of us takes an one hour break from anything, you come back and there’s 150 text on your phone, I think Hayden has muted the John, Josh, Hayden conversation on the text chain at this point because he’ll wander away for an hour and come back and be so lost, that he’s scrolling and doesn’t understand what’s going on. And we’ve all experienced that. It’s just something we’re passionate about, it’s something that’s fun for us. Because, we are in the fandom. If we weren’t making the show, we’d be watching the show, we’d be commenting on the show, we’d be telling our friends about it. It’s like we get to work at a restaurant that we like eating at. We’re talking about the food, we’re talking about the ingredients, and we’re exploring new recipes, while making sure it fits on the menu, eating all the ingredients you eat, we’re constantly eating as we cook. So yeah, no, we don’t take a break. That’s also because we’ve been friends for 25 years. And this is part of our language at this point.
Steven Prusakowski: It sounds like the dream job.
Hayden Schlossberg: Yeah, and it helps when you really care about something, because to make this show is a real pain in the ass. Just in terms of time. It’s like doing three or four movies or something like that. We were used to writing 120 page scripts and, at the end of the day, this is like 300 to 400 pages worth of material. We’re not writing at all. We have a huge writing staff, but we’re obsessed with every word on that page, and it becomes quite a chore. And yet, as we said early on, it can be fun.
Steven Prusakowski: How did COVID affect it? And were the concerns that you wouldn’t be hitting season four deadlines?
Josh Heald: COVID affected us as much as it affected anybody else. Production wise, we weren’t prepared to go into production on season four, any sooner than we did. And once we did, we were fully in the thick of the pandemic and following all the protocols. We were, if you’re in Zone A, you were testing three times a week and everybody, regardless of zones, we had face masks and face shields. We were at the mercy of the virus. You can’t escape, you can’t outrun a virus.
But we did our best to fight it with karate. And everyone was just really diligent. We were a very fortunate production that we didn’t experience the kinds of overwhelming shutdowns that some shows have experienced, and we stayed largely on schedule. But it was an adjustment. It was a creative adjustment to have a writers room fully remotely over zoom, which just made things go a little bit longer. And getting your sea legs, when you’re on set, with everybody in a mask, and you’re trying to give a note, and they can’t read your lips from 50 feet away.
You’re trying to figure out what the new normal is for a job that is very, very collaborative, and often involves a lot of people standing close to each other, giving each other sweaty handshakes. When you adjust to that and you have figured out new things, by the time you’re in your second or third week of that, it just becomes your new language, and you realize you’re still doing the same thing. It was something that we dealt with, but no one will feel it, when they watch the season.
Hayden Schlossberg: It didn’t affect the creative, it was just more like the fun of the shoot that it affected. The show had just broken out on Netflix, and was this huge success. And you’d love to go out with everybody who’s been on the show and celebrate, and instead we were hugged from a distance.
Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, I was thinking with a tournament that’s got to be, you know, the logistics of that scheduling and making sure everyone is tested that’s got to be really difficult.
Josh Heald: It was logistics – we were asking questions about things like crowds and things like intense stunt scenes where you have a lot of characters sharing space. We started asking those questions before production, and we started exploring all avenues during production. But as for the final results, we’re over the moon happy with in terms of what we could have imagined would have been possible when we started, making season four and what we actually committed to film by the time we were done,
Steven Prusakowski: I love it. You’re like really, really proud, good parents who know what is best for your child, and are going to make it happen. You’re going to cross whatever hurdles (or mountains) are put in your way. You were going to make your way through, over, or around them.
Josh Heald: We knew we had to get from here to there. We said we’re gonna win this tournament, and we know we’re going to do it. So the virus and all of the ripple effects of that virus become our obstacle. And as long as we are managing those obstacles safely and determining a path, then we can only do as much as we can do.
Hayden Schlossberg: Good thing is by the time we shot, Cobra Kai season four, multiple productions had already gone through the initials that Covid brings. And we actually produced a movie, Plan B, for Hulu before Cobra Kia so had been through some of the experiences. You can’t control what you can’t control. So we just set out to do what we knew what needed to be done. In the end, it ended up working out really well.
Steven Prusakowski: I really enjoyed the film by the way. Let me just finish up with what are three words that you would use to describe Cobra Kai?
Hayden Schlossberg: Josh you wanna take a stab at that one?
Josh Heald: JOHN, Josh and Hayden. (laughs) Okay. Let’s see… Badass. Earnest. Badass, again.
Hayden Schlossberg: Badass. Earnest. Badass. On board with that.
Steven Prusakowski: Alright, I like it.
Hayden Schlossberg: Yeah, it’s 66% badass.