Comedians are loath to follow a better act.  But musicians not so much.  Definitely not academics.  Why?

  1. Comedy is more vertically differentiated.  It’s really funny, just a little funny, or not funny.  The subject matter adds another dimension but that’s not so important for the ultimate impact.  Music is more horizontally differentiated.  So the opening act can be really good at what they do, but you can still please the audience if you’re not quite as good but do something different.  On this score academics are more like musicians.
  2. Laughs are physical.  You only have so many of those to give in a night. Wheras good music has the effect of putting you in a mental state that makes you more receptive to even more music.  Here academic talks are more like comedy.  The audience gets taxed.
  3. Headlining musicians always degrade the quality of the opening act by giving them less stage space and limited lighting and other effects.  In large conferences academics do the same thing by distinguishing the “plenary” talks from the rest.  (Get this:  in Istanbul this summer I am giving a semi-plenary talk.)  There is no obvious way to do this for comedy.
  4. Music is played by groups, comedians are always solo.  Somehow the head-to-head comparison is less exact for groups.  Solo singers are probably more reluctant to follow better singers than groups are when following other groups.  Academics get to blame their backstage co-authors.