Thirty years ago this week, a rising, but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.
My phone call with Danny Cooksey took a while to set up for a good reason: He was busy sending his son off to camp. That’s a rite of passage the 45-year-old actor and musician understands better than most.
In 1991 and 1992, Cooksey starred in Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts, an ensemble comedy set at the fictional Camp Anawanna, where adolescents swam, played, went on trips, and tortured their counselor Kevin “Ug” Lee. Cooksey played Bobby Budnick, a troublemaker who bullies and schemes his way to legend status. With his fiery red mullet, headbanger style, and reflexive rebelliousness, he instantly became the show’s most recognizable character. And though he has a first name, most knew him simply as Budnick.
These days, the now slightly shorter-haired man behind the mononym gets why people still ask him about a series that lasted only two seasons. (Though even deep into reruns in the late ’90s, the show was a ratings success.) The idea of summer camp evokes nostalgia, even in those who never went. “It’s the notion of freedom,” Cooksey says. “No matter what age you are. If you’re a teenager, if you’re really young, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m sort of on my own.’ I think it’s everybody’s first little taste of freedom. And even if they don’t experience that, it’s what they imagine that it could’ve been like.”
Salute Your Shorts, which creator Steve Slavkin based on his book of the same name, is stuffed full of classic camp tropes, including a corny alma mater that Budnick punches up with a fart joke. Yet it was funnier, warmer, and smarter than most programming aimed at preteens back then. Like real overnight camp, the single-camera show fostered a sense of togetherness—characters weren’t really roughing it in a bunk together, but it felt like they were.
For Cooksey, who in the mid-’80s had appeared in the final three seasons of Diff’rent Strokes, the early ’90s were heady times. The teenager also appeared in Terminator 2: Judgement Day as John Connor’s friend Tim, voiced Montana Max in Tiny Toon Adventures, and sang in the metal band Bad4Good. Still, he doesn’t mind that Budnick remains his signature role. Even if he still has to answer questions about the dreaded Awful Waffle.
“It’s like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction,” Cooksey says. “Nobody quite knows what it is.”
Here’s my interview with Cooksey. Read it right or pay the price.
I went to camp for a lot of years, and I remember watching Salute Your Shorts and being super jealous that the counselors were not in the cabins with you.
That’s so funny. The camp that I went to was a skateboard camp. They probably still have it going, up in the redwoods. And all of the counselors were like pro-am skateboarders. Like, a counselor that could literally not give a shit what you’re doing. The counselors were like, “Sun’s up. You guys have a great day. Bye. Shower, don’t shower. Change clothes. I don’t freaking care. I’m going to skate.”
So by then, I think you had done several sitcoms, but can you take me through how you got the role?
I remember going to the audition, and I almost feel like I was brought in for the new kid [Michael], and then they just sort of go, “Well, that was good, but here, let’s try this.” I remember there being lots of different versions, like, “Let’s have you come in and read for this person …” And so, everybody’s sort of going in and reading in different pairs. And I remember, it ended up being myself and Michael Bower [who plays] Donkeylips. I remember just sort of thinking, “OK, this thing is locked down.”
Had you ever played a badass kid like that?
Not really. But I was already doing Montana Max. He was kind of the bad kid, too. It was so much fun to be that different character, because I had been the boy next door for, God, many years.
You’ll probably laugh at this question, but had you grown your hair out at that point? Because it’s such a distinct thing. People remember you for your hair.
It was different phases. I was growing it out and then Terminator came along, and then they cut it in this quintessential shaved-on-the-side mullet thing. So then, that was there. And then at one point in time there was a discussion whether it was too long. Wigs were brought up. There was a whole whoop-de-do. And then finally, at that age, I was literally just like, “I don’t give a shit. I’m growing my hair out.” I’m playing in a rock band. It is what it is.
So, you guys filmed in a boys’ camp at Griffith Park? Is that right?
All of the exterior stuff was all shot up in Griffith Park, and another place we also used up in the Canyons. And then the interiors were all done in North Hollywood.
Did it sort of feel like camp? Was there that camaraderie?
You know, it did. I mean, we weren’t on a studio lot, we weren’t at Nickelodeon Studios in Florida. We were sort of off in our own little world. I can see how that comes across, because we weren’t going to the Paramount lot commissary, you know what I mean?
I’m sure it blurred together, but do you have favorite episodes, or favorite moments from filming?
We also filmed really, really strangely. We would do four [episodes] and then come back and do two. But I think it was a capture the flag episode with a bunch of water balloons. My character really never got his [comeuppance]. Unlike Kirk [Baily], who played the counselor—every week, the poor guy was a target. In that particular episode, [there was] the Platoon death scene, where I’m just getting smashed with water balloons. I remember walking to set and every crew member on the planet had multiple water balloons. They were like, “All right, your turn, smartass.”
Did you notice people’s perceptions of you matching what you were on the show, versus what you really were in real life?
That was just kind of life. I ended up on Diff’rent Strokes when I was really young. It was like, “You’re in California, let’s go.” I wasn’t pursuing it and just sort of ended up on a prime-time show. Being recognized, that was just a thing. But it was funny with [Salute Your Shorts], because you’re in this little bubble. It was cable TV, so that was a little different. I mean, you didn’t have network upfronts, and all the promotion, and this machine behind things that I had done previously.
At some point, we went to Orlando to do some type of a Nickelodeon thing and a school group started singing the theme song to us. It was that moment where you go, “Oh yeah, I guess people really are watching this fictional TV show.”
So, you’ve got to tell me about your band. Was it Bad4Good?
Yeah, that was the project I was doing at the time.
It was a metal band, right?
Yeah. We were on Interscope Records, and Steve Vai produced an album for us. We worked our buns off for, gosh, almost two years. There were certain times that everything sort of overlapped, so I remember there was a period of time where I would go in the morning to do Salute Your Shorts, leave at lunchtime to do Tiny Toons, back from that over to the set of Terminator 2, and then I would record vocals and make a record at night after everything was over. And then repeat that the next day. It was a wild time.
How the hell do you manage that as a teenager?
You’re young. You have a lot of energy. And it’s exciting. I mean, it’s like, you’re doing this over here, and then you’re watching things get blown up for what you know is going to be a ginormous movie.
I know Salute Your Shorts has done reunions, but were your castmates like close camp buddies in real life? Do you occasionally reconnect with them?
We stayed in contact for the most part. Actually, Erik MacArthur and I lived together for a while. He’s the guy in the first season that plays Mike.
Is it odd seeing how long a tail the show had? It was on reruns forever.
Yeah, they played the heck out of it.
And I’m curious, are you surprised that a show like that hasn’t come up again? It seems primed for some sort of reboot.
I mean, there’s a million different ways to tell that story or bring it back, and it certainly helps that for a show that didn’t have that long of a run, and not that many episodes, it definitely has a little life of its own.
I think it would be perfect for some type of a reboot. A reboot in a grown-up fashion. Not necessarily safe for work, I guess. Because I mean, we were always sort of on the verge of, that’s not really appropriate for children’s television. So, that would seem like a logical step.
I don’t know if you’re sick of hearing this question, but how often do you get “Budnick”?
You know, it’s funny, as I’ve gotten older, I get recognized less and less. But what I get more of these days are people asking, “Where did you go to high school? Did we go to camp together? I know you …” I’m like, “Well, I guess we were kind of at camp together.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.