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When you bring a multi-decade story about the British monarchy to Netflix, perhaps you have visions of Emmys dancing in your head, but it’s doubtful that creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg had the same expectations when they brought their sequel to The Karate Kid to fledgling streamer YouTube Red.
Cobra Kai did earn strong reviews and helped put YouTube Red on the map, but it wasn’t enough to keep the platform in the streaming scripted game, so the Ralph Macchio and William Zabka reunion moved to Netflix. Suddenly, Cobra Kai went from cult favorite to mainstream smash — and suddenly the show went from unexpectedly admired to Emmy nominee for outstanding comedy series. Heald recently spoke with THR about the expanded recognition, future nomination hopes for his stars and what proudly uncouth sensei Johnny Lawrence (Zabka) would make of Ted Lasso.
To be clear, Cobra Kai had been nominated for stunt Emmys in consecutive years, so it already was an Emmy-nominated show, but did you go into Emmy-nomination morning this time around with a different set of expectations or a different set of hopes?
We went into Emmy-nomination morning without expectations that we would get nominated for best comedy series. First of all, our show is a mix of so many genres. We are up for consideration as a comedy by virtue of our half-hour-ish running time. And there’s plenty of comedy in the show, but it’s not a standard comedy, so it’s hard for us to look at the landscape of other comedies and come in with expectations of “We should be exalted because this is the funniest thing in the world.” We are three comedy writers who are doing something that is the least joke-driven writing experience yet for us.
We really were watching the nominations hoping that there were some breakthrough nominations in other categories. We’re thrilled our sound department got a couple of big ones because, man, do they do a lot of work. And our stunt team. We were thrilled every year that they got recognized because they go through quite a bit to put what they put on the screen, and working with the actors, and getting into a place where it looks pretty seamless and pretty impressive given time constraints, budget, production schedule and everything else.
But we’ve never had a chip on our shoulders of like, “They’re never going to nominate us, and we’re the best show in the world.” We went into that morning with eyes wide open and always hoping that you get someone giving you a pat on the back and saying, “Hey, well done.” It’s all meaningful to us that the show is connecting and landing with people.
It feels like the next step after the series nomination is to get your stars on that shortlist. What’s it going to take, do you think, for Billy Zabka and Ralph Macchio in season four and beyond to be in that conversation in future years?
We asked a lot of everybody in the cast, but this show from its inception, from the pitch, was “Let’s dig into the lives of these two characters who we knew only as teenagers and we’re dropping into their lives 30-plus years later.” For both of them, it’s a role reversal. We’re not only asking Ralph to play different colors with Daniel [LaRusso] later in life, after conquering the demons and moving on and having a great family, and then getting sucked back into this karate war. But he’s doing it all without Mr. Miyagi.
The offscreen element of Mr. Miyagi is almost the most important on-screen element of Ralph’s performance, in terms of Daniel coming to terms with wishing he had answers and discovering what it means to be a sensei, to be a mentor, to not only be a good father and a good businessman but to all of a sudden feel the responsibility of hundreds of years of tradition.
And likewise, for Billy, this feels in real time like watching an actor exorcise the demons of having been remembered and typecast in certain ways of being an ’80s villain. It’s a way of accepting that there is trauma in the past with John Lawrence and it’s the trauma that Johnny carried with him through life.
I can just say, without giving away any spoilers, season four delivers on the premise of the series, which is what happens when these guys get into each other’s lives and get under each other’s skin. We’ve watched arguments, we’ve watched consequences and reactions, and overreactions, and now we’re entering a phase in which they are putting down their weapons and looking at each other and accepting the challenge in front of them with [head teacher John] Kreese and kind of taking that next step and trying to grow as adults and leaders. And it’s a great tipping point for them as performers and for their characters because it starts to provide new colors to their arrangement that are not just “I hate you, I hate you.” We’re finally entering into a second phase of their relationship.
In the past couple of months, I’ve reviewed TV shows based on Turner & Hooch, based on The Mighty Ducks. But you guys were ahead of the curve on the ’80s legacy sequel game. What have you learned about the balancing act between feeding your audience’s nostalgia but also making a show that exists without that nostalgia being necessary at all?
That’s a question we thought really heavily about before pitching the show. It became really important to us right away to make sure that we’re giving the audience what they expect, but it’s not just “Hey, remember this? Let’s go do this again.” So, Ralph Macchio, for years, was pitched projects that were like, “Hey, let’s do The Karate Kid again, and you’re the Karate Man, and now you’re mentoring this kid.” So it was important to us to come at this show with a completely different concept — “What if Johnny Lawrence was the Mr. Miyagi of this show?” — at the inception and what does that mean in terms of trying to do right but you have the wrong tools in your toolbox?
So right away, there was a different layer on the show, but it was also important to us that we’re not just mining nostalgic characters and saying, “OK, what else can we do with these guys that we didn’t see already in multiple movies?” So we knew that we needed to introduce new protagonists and a new journey, and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just asking the audience to jump into the show and immediately accept that you are with new characters and a new journey, and technically it’s part of The Karate Kid universe because we tell you it is, but really it’s about these new characters. We knew it had to be a marriage.
We write our show for two audiences. One is the diehard fans who have seen every frame of the Karate Kid movie franchise and catch every single Easter egg and turn of phrase. And the other is a casual audience who heard about the show and in a short time can figure out, “OK, here are these two guys. They don’t get along. Why? Something happened in high school. OK.” And we’re off to the races.
The comedy series category features an underdog sports showdown with Cobra Kai and Ted Lasso, which really raises only one question: What would Johnny Lawrence make of Ted Lasso and his particular brand of empowerment?
Ted Lasso is such an earnest, good man, like, “We’re going to win, and gosh darn it, we’re going to do it because we all like each other and we all get along.” I think Johnny Lawrence is a little grittier and a little dirtier. He’s been through the wringer. He wants to do things that are morally right. He’s shown his distaste for cheating, but at the same time, Johnny, I think, would judge Ted Lasso for not being hard-rock enough. … I’m not sure how Johnny would feel about Ted Lasso’s mustache, and I feel like Johnny would want Ted to use a little bit more colorful language. They both have the same desire, which is to raise champions and to see their team come out on top. I think Johnny likes getting there with a little bit more blood and sweat all over his uniform at the end of the day.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And The Odds Are…
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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