Updating a pop culture touchstone like The Karate Kid to appeal to a new generation of fans might sound like a task way harder than just waxing on and waxing off. But Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, who as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence established their onscreen childhood rivalry all the way back in 1984, say their real-life friendship has made it easy to tell fresh stories with Cobra Kai, YouTube Red’s well-received reboot series.
If you’ve had the chance to check out Cobra Kai, you know the show brings fresh nuance to the original films’ idea that Daniel and Johnny are archetypal characters — one all good, the other all bad. In fact, the show gives Johnny a new character complexity that, coupled with Daniel’s obnoxious embrace of upper-middle class success, invites new viewers to question which of these guys is standing on higher ground.
Macchio said the show expands on what began as a semi-silly idea spawned back in 2013, when CBS’ How I Met Your Mother brought the two stars on to indulge Barney Stinson’s (played by Neil Patrick Harris) long-held belief that Johnny was always the real hero of the Karate Kid movies.
That storyline, in which Barney maintained “that Johnny Lawrence was the real Karate Kid, and the nerdy jerk [Daniel] from New Jersey ruined his life — it started this whole onslaught of pop culture saying maybe LaRusso got lucky and Johnny Lawrence was just a good guy with a bad teacher,” Macchio recently told IGN. “…The fact that people are still, to this day, getting in heated arguments over stuff like that, is just awesome.”
Zabka added that his real-life friendship with Macchio made some kind of screen reunion between the two almost inevitable, and that it serves to elevate their dynamic, three decades later, in Cobra Kai.
“We actually had a project where we were starting right around the time the [Cobra Kai creators] came to meet us," he explained. “We had something brewing, and we felt like there was something out there, for the two of us together.”
He went on to say that the creative team — Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald — took a fresh approach to the adult versions of Daniel and Johnny, trusting Macchio and Zabka to embody longtime fans’ expectations of these characters while giving new viewers something of a clean slate.
“In a sense, they’re almost new characters,” said Zabka. “…I feel like we’re making a show that, even if there was no Karate Kid, if this show just started clean, it would work.”
So far, that seems to be more than conjecture. The show’s first episode already has been viewed 19 million times, and critics have responded warmly to the way Cobra Kai balances nostalgia with present-day sensibilities.
“You see what’s going on with Will & Grace and Roseanne,” Macchio said. “…There are smart ways to re-enter a world from a fresh angle.”
You can catch the first two episodes of Cobra Kai free on YouTube, and the entire 10-episode first season with a YouTube Red subscription.