Created by Josh Heald (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), Jonathan Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (the “Harold and Kumar” films, “Blockers”), longtime friends and “Karate Kid” obsessives, the half-hour comedy flips the story to focus on Johnny. “Cobra Kai” offers the young tough-turned-old deadbeat a chance at redemption while illuminating the reasons behind his behavior all those years ago. (They involve a stepfather played by Ed Asner.)
When Johnny resurrects the old Cobra Kai dojo, it triggers Daniel, a successful car dealer who misses the stabilizing influence of his late mentor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). As the rivalry reignites and finds proxy in young protégés, multigenerational resentments, confrontations and hook-kicks ensue.
“It’s a karate opera,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “There’s a fun sort of Hatfields and McCoys vibe.”
Now in their 50s, Mr. Macchio and Mr. Zabka each have had periods of wanting to keep “The Karate Kid” at arm’s length. (They’ve heard enough “wax on” and “sweep the leg” jokes for many lifetimes.) But they were lured back into their headbands by the update on the story and its themes, some of which, like bullying, are getting more attention now than they were in 1984.
Credit Columbia Pictures
The Google-owned YouTube, which beat out more established outlets like Netflix and Hulu for the rights to “Cobra Kai,” was enticed by the series’s potential to expand the audience for YouTube Red, said Susanne Daniels, the global head of programming. The service has been making deals lately with established franchises (the “Step Up” movies) and filmmakers (Doug Liman) in an effort to move beyond its homegrown stable of viral stars toward more mainstream appeal.
YouTube also knows from search metrics that “The Karate Kid” remains popular among its users, and it plans to use its multitude of clips from and inspired by the movies to promote “Cobra Kai.” Anyone who wants to relive, say, the original’s cheesily triumphant “You’re the Best” montage, which has more than 15.5 million views, can expect to see in the adjacent “up next” queue the first two episodes of “Cobra Kai,” which will be available free. (The show’s trailer, hyped in similar fashion, has been viewed nearly 13 million times.)
That plus the fact that Ms. Daniels offered a full series deal in the pitch meeting was enough to get the “Cobra Kai” creators to overlook the relatively paltry subscriber base. YouTube declined to release figures, but it’s safe to say they lag far behind the totals for streaming behemoths like Netflix (125 million) and Amazon (which has more than 100 million people paying for Amazon Prime, which also includes access to its programming).
The upside, the creators say, is that unlike at a place like Netflix, which plans to release hundreds of shows this year, there is little chance “Cobra Kai” will get lost in the marketing shuffle.
“It’s nice to be a big fish in a small pond,” Mr. Hurwitz said, “when the small pond is Google.”
There have been five “Karate Kid” films, including the initial three movies (Mr. Zabka appeared in the first two); a partial reboot with Hilary Swank replacing Mr. Macchio, in 1994; and a totally new one in 2010, starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.
“Cobra Kai” draws almost exclusively from the first movie and actually begins with a flashback to the moment Daniel laid out Johnny in the ’84 All Valley Karate Championship with the infamous crane kick, the legality of which is still debated online.
“That kick to the head sent them on two different trajectories,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “Daniel on the upswing, and Johnny in the downward spiral that’s been going for the last 30 years.”
Johnny is now a Coors-guzzling handyman who is “stuck in 1989,” Mr. Zabka said, cruising around Southern California in an old Firebird, jamming to vintage hair metal and scowling at billboards for LaRusso Auto Group, which gives away bonsai trees with every purchase. They are still on opposite sides of the tracks, but they’ve switched sides: Daniel has a grand compound in affluent Encino, Johnny a dingy apartment in Reseda. (Aside from some exteriors, the series was shot in and around Atlanta.)
When events conspire to bring the old foes back into both karate and one another’s orbit, history repeats itself in melodramatic fashion. Johnny’s student Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), a bullied new kid in town, squares off with Daniel’s protégé, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who happens to be Johnny’s estranged son. Each pines for Daniel’s daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), shades of the Ali-Daniel-Johnny triangle of the first film.
“The good news is now I’m sitting on the sidelines — I’m not getting my ass kicked,” Mr. Macchio said. “At 56, no matter how much hair and makeup help me, everything hurts more in the morning.”
Even off camera, both he and Mr. Zabka, 52, are remarkably well-preserved. This is key to maintaining the possibility that the story’s old guys might actually fight, too — the will-they-or-won’t-they of this particular sitcom. (“My kicks are still high,” Mr. Zabka warned, grinning. “No mercy.”)
Credit YouTube Photo
But neither was interested putting on a karate gi for a broad, nostalgic spoof. In separate interviews, the actors struck similar notes of protectiveness about the “Karate Kid” legacy, about how important it was for “Cobra Kai” to spin the story forward and include some of the film’s heart along with the clever callbacks, fan Easter eggs and “humor that comes from the fact that these two guys have not moved past it,” Mr. Macchio said.
The actors long ago made peace with the fact that as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they’ll never entirely move past “The Karate Kid.”
Mr. Macchio had other indelible roles in movies like “The Outsiders,” “Crossroads” and “My Cousin Vinny,” and he has starred on Broadway. But he knows that any time he attends a sporting event, the arena will put him on the Jumbotron and play “You’re the Best” at some point.
Mr. Zabka moved on to other roles and was nominated for an Oscar for “Most (The Bridge),” a 2003 short he co-wrote and co-produced, about a father forced to make a tragic sacrifice, but he still gets asked to send up Johnny in sitcoms and music videos. “There something alive about it — these characters have become real to people in a way,” he said.
The actors have a hard time articulating precisely why “The Karate Kid” endures, chalking it up to some alchemy of the underdog story, the unforgettable characters (Mr. Miyagi, the aggro Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese) and a script that balanced the corniness and catchphrases with great pathos. (Even the villain got a moment of grace at the end, when Johnny handed Daniel the trophy.) The movie stuck with them, too — Mr. Zabka admitted that it was more than a decade before he was able to watch it with anything like objectivity.
“For so long, I still felt that kick,” he said.
Kept mostly apart during filming, Mr. Macchio and Mr. Zabka never really became friends until later, on the fan convention circuit. But while it’s an odd thing, being randomly but inextricably linked to another person for your entire adult life, there’s something transporting about it, too.
Mr. Macchio, for one, was stunned at how quickly the old fire came back once the actors finally faced off for the first time during filming for “Cobra Kai.”
“It just had all that tension — you look into his eyes, and he’s looking at mine,” he said. “The eyelids had a couple more wrinkles, but it felt like yesterday.”