In hindsight, Netflix’s (formerly YouTube’s) Cobra Kai was too great an idea to not happen.
Taking a beloved ‘80s movie property, The Karate Kid, and reimagining for a new generation focused on the villainous Cobra Kai dojo from the film series? That’s gold! Or at least, we know that’s gold now, having been able to see it through four, soon-to-be-five, wonderful seasons of karate action.
Prior to Cobra Kai premiering in 2018, however, very few people had the vision that Karate Kid’s ostensible villain Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) would make for a compelling antihero more than 30 years later. A handful of people who did have that vision were Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg, who convinced Zabka and Sony Pictures Television to give a series based on the “bad guys” a try. But there was another surprising source out there in pop culture who knew the idea would work: the sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
How I Met Your Mother ran for nine mostly well-received seasons (and one apocalyptically poorly-received finale) on CBS. As many of you undoubtedly know, the show’s conceit is all right there in the title. In the distant future of 2030, Ted Mosby (voiced by Bob Saget, R.I.P.) gathers his kids together to tell them the sprawling story of how he met their mother. Over the span of more than 200 episodes, it becomes quite clear that Ted’s story is really about being young and having the time of your life with your friends in New York City more than anything. As such, the series is filled with pop cultural references that 20 and 30-something college-educated NYC nerds might enjoy.
Of all the characters on HIMYM, Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) seems most plugged in with the classic movies and TV shows he loves. A perpetual bachelor, Barney spends much of his considerable wealth on pop culture artifacts…including a lifesize replica of a stormtrooper that stands sentry in his apartment. In one season 4 episode, it is revealed that Barney’s pop culture interests run deep – all the way back to a childhood spent in a modest home with his single mother Loretta (Frances Conroy). It’s here that the show lays the groundwork for what would eventually become a recurring gag about Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid and also unwittingly soften up the TV landscape for the arrival of Cobra Kai.
In HIMYM season 4 episode 15, the gang visits Barney’s childhood home just outside of the city. After Marshall (Jason Segel) sees Barney’s bedroom, he comments approvingly on the Karate Kid poster above his bed.
“Karate Kid’s a great movie,” Barney responds. “It’s the story of a hopeful, young karate enthusiast whose dreams and moxie take him all the way to the All Valley Karate Championship. Of course sadly he loses in the final round to that nerd kid. But he learns an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat.”
Marshalls’ wife Lily (Alyson Hannigan) asks if Barney has things confused. Does he really root for Johnny Lawrence, THE BAD GUY, in Karate Kid?
“No, I root for the scrawny loser from New Jersey who barely even knows karate. When I watch The Karate Kid I root for THE Karate Kid. Johnny Lawrence from the Cobra Kai dojo. Get your head out of your ass, Lily.”
From that moment on, Barney’s love for William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence and his sincere belief that he is the real hero of The Karate Kid becomes a recurring joke throughout the rest of How I Met Your Mother. Both William Zabka and Ralph Macchio turn up in the flesh playing themselves in the season 8 episode “The Bro-Mitzvah.” And then in the show’s final season, Zabka becomes essentially a supporting character, appearing in six episodes as a guest at Barney’s season-long wedding.
The joke works because of Barney’s steady characterization. Of course he would empathize with the villain in a movie as even Barney’s closest friends would admit that he’s basically a villain himself. A selfish rake of a man, Barney is obsessed with attractive women, bespoke suits, and power above all else. But as the series goes on and Zabka becomes a more consistent presence, the joke begins to take on a new dimension. Maybe Johnny Lawrence wasn’t so bad after all?
As Barney puts it so succinctly, Johnny Lawrence has “dreams and moxie” just like any other movie hero. And in the end he really does learn an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat. They say that history is written by the winners and Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso “won” the Karate Kid film franchise. Wouldn’t things look quite different from Johnny’s perspective? He trained just as hard as Daniel. Is it really his fault that that Daniel received training from the kind and humble Mr. Miyagi and not the stern and calculating John Kreese?
That is why Barney’s Johnny Lawrence fixation works as both a joke and a character-building exercise on HIMYM and it’s the same principle that would eventually lead to the creation and success of Cobra Kai. For what it’s worth, Cobra Kai’s creators were well aware of HIMYM’s Johnny Lawrence joke, but they say it didn’t directly factor into the creation of the show aside from giving them confidence that other people saw what they saw too.
“All that stuff just kind of buoyed us a little bit when we were conceiving the show and comparing the storylines to pitch the show because it made us feel confident that we weren’t the only ones, and we didn’t think we were. But it was nice to see other creators have Karate Kid on the mind,” Josh Heald told CBR in 2020.
While William Zabka’s time on How I Met Your Mother didn’t directly lead to the creation of Cobra Kai, it did serve as a helpful reminder that sometimes an idea is too good not to pursue.