Why Do Late-Night Talk Shows Start at 11:35 p.m.?

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Press the menu button on your cable remote and you’ll see the schedule lineup in a neat grid. Almost all TV shows start on the hour or half-hour, and this has been the case since the early days of television—with one notable exception: late-night talk shows on the big broadcast networks. Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel all begin at 11:35 p.m. eastern time, and the shows that follow them also begin a few minutes after the half-hour. These are virtually the only shows on American television that begin at a time not ending with a zero. How did late-night shows get these irregular time slots?

You can partially blame Saddam Hussein.

At the start of the 1990s, affiliates “had been clamoring … to grab more time away from the networks,” Bill Carter—a former TV writer for The New York Times and author of The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night and The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy—tells mental_floss via email.

Local TV stations, which contract for programming from national networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC, wanted more airtime for their newscasts. Carter says there was special pressure on NBC, because they demanded more time from their local stations during late-night hours for national broadcasts. To be an NBC affiliate at that time meant dedicating two hours every weeknight to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. While CBS, ABC, and Fox had some programming after 11 p.m., there was no block of late-night TV as permanent and unshakable as NBC’s.

“Some NBC stations were pushing the idea of moving The Tonight Show [to midnight],” Carter says, “which might have killed the franchise.”

When the first Gulf War began in the summer of 1990, the affiliates intensified their campaign for more news time, insisting they had to cover the conflict. NBC acquiesced by temporarily moving the start of its late-night block from 11:30 p.m. to 11:35 p.m. But once the local stations had those five precious minutes, they didn’t want to give them back.

Johnny Carson, who had hosted The Tonight Show for nearly 28 years at that point, was infuriated over the bump. "He understands the TV business and knows you never get that time back," Carter says of Carson's thinking at the time. "He fears the next move will be an 11:45 p.m. start and then midnight." But since Carson had been planning to retire in a couple of years, "he let it happen without real protest."

Once NBC gave its affiliates an extra five minutes for newscasts, the other networks followed suit. CBS didn’t want to seem like it was offering its affiliates a rawer deal, so when David Letterman began his Late Show on the network in 1993, CBS slotted the program at 11:35 p.m. ABC also slid its news show Nightline to 11:35 p.m. and moved Jimmy Kimmel Live! to that time slot in 2013.

A standard was set for the big networks, and it helped broaden the late-night landscape. "This open[ed] an opportunity for cable, which starts its late night at 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.," Carter says, "creating the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert phenomenon, as well as [Cartoon Network's] Adult Swim." Starting in the early 2000s, those cable lineups managed to chip away at the big networks' once-unassailable ratings leads.

So, ultimately, Johnny Carson had the last laugh.

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

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Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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