Screens: NBC

'Pompous Ass Of The Year'

It may shock you to learn that John's talking about a Cheers character other than Frasier Crane.

A couple of minutes into the pilot of Cheers, two people walk into the bar. One of them is Diane Chambers, who would become the intellectual fish out of water who so successfully rounded out one of the greatest TV-comedy ensembles in history.

The other is a man named Sumner Sloan.

Sumner, we soon learn, is a professor of world literature at Boston University. Diane is his teaching assistant and current fiancée; in fact, they're on their way to Barbados to get hitched. But the only important thing about Sumner is that he's one of the most wonderfully self-possessed, arrogant, and pompous characters the halls of TV academia ever saw fit to subject (sorry) us to. For example, as Diane tells it, his proposal to her took the form of this quote: "Come with me, and be my love, and we will some new pleasures prove." When she adds that it's Donne, here's Sam:


Amen, Malone, but it's to his credit and our enjoyment that Sumner is always undeterred by such lack of appreciation of his worldly intellect. He has Diane wait while he goes to try to retrieve an old family ring from his ex-wife, the unseen Barbara; you, everyone at Cheers, and most Beantown newborns can guess what happens next, as Sumner ends up throwing Diane over for sex with his ex. (Before he does, though, he offhandedly participates in -- and wins -- a discussion of the question of the sweatiest movie ever made.)


A year later, with Sam and Diane an item, Sumner returns, and it's here that the pomposity reaches dizzyingly delightful levels. Sumner claims only to want to win Diane back as a friend, as he's still with Barbara; after Diane forgives him (but not without suggesting they "cut the crap," prompting Sumner to clutch his intellectual pearls) and he's on his way out, there's this:


Sure -- have a peach while you're up! He proposes a dinner in order for Diane to get to know Barbara -- smarming that they're "sisters of the soul" ("sisters of the sloppy seconds," while a bit vulgar for Sumner's tastes, also works from an alliterative POV) -- and she agrees, still unable to repel his particular snooty brand of charm offensive. When Sam learns Diane didn't tell Sumner about him, he shames her into rectifying that omission, only to regret it when he realizes how far out of his conversational depth he's going to be. Taking advice from Cliff -- it's a desperate situation indeed -- he foregoes sleep for several nights in order to read War And Peace so as to have an intellectual arrow in his quiver. Unfortunately, Sumner -- dripping so much disdain that Carla has to follow him with a rag so the customers don't slip on it -- informs Sam that he taught a Tolstoy seminar for years, after which he vowed never again to discuss it. Sam:



After dinner, Sumner's grandiose pomposity reaches stratospheric levels; when Sam complains that he was left out of their dinner conversation, Sumner sniffs that they tried several times to solicit his opinion, "but none was forthcoming." Then, after Sam storms off, Sumner loftily confesses to Diane that he and Barbara are exes once again, and as such he returned "to see if there might be one spark left of that brilliant fire that streaked across the sky like a meteor." Even Diane is like



Not me, though, because seriously, HOW AWESOME IS THAT? And he's not done! He continues that he may not be perfect, but…


I AGREE. Diane, however, sticks with Sam, and nary a further thought is given to Sumner -- until the fifth-season finale, when he returns to tell Diane that, given her impending marriage to Sam, he feared that he had overestimated her. It's brilliantly self-involved for him only to be worried how Diane's life choices reflect on his judgment, but it spurred him to review all her writing -- and he's concluded that it's great. In particular, he was so taken with an unfinished novel (Jocasta's Conundrum, BTW) of hers that he gave it to an editor friend of his, who also loved it -- and would like Diane to finish it for publication.

When Sumner realizes that Diane stopped writing once she came to Cheers, he offers her use of his secluded cabin in Maine; then, when she turns him down in favor of marrying Sam, he snidely condescends to her by asking if the life she wants is "teaching Sam pinochle so you can finally have the Mundanes over to dinner." And when Diane holds firm, Sumner summons all his reserves for his parting line: "The time will come when you look back on this moment and realize you made a terrible mistake. How appropriate that as I take my leave of you, you are holding the eight ball." Diane:


Of course, we know how this story ends: Sam, whether from cold feet, genuine desire to do the right thing, or a combination of the two, tells Diane that she's got to take this shot to do something she's great at, and the two of them part ways. It's a genius stroke to have Sumner bookend Diane's entrance into and exit from Cheers; it's no exaggeration to say he propelled her life forward in both instances. And he did so while showing us how awesomely comedic his brand of pompous self-assuredness could be. Sumner, you may not have been perfect -- except you totally, totally were.

Other favorite Sumner moments:

On the importance of the ring, Diane: "You're enough for me." Sumner: "True, but symbols are important."

When the ex calls him at the bar to offer the ring: "Oh Barbara, that's very human of you. And Barbara? Your depth frightens me."

Sumner tells Coach he was at a dinner at which he heard that Diane was working at Cheers; is that right? Coach: "I don't know; I wasn't at the dinner." Sumner:


After all these years, Norm asks Sumner if he remembers him and his friends; without skipping a beat, Sumner replies, "How could I forget? Barney, Wally, Ed."

Frasier introduces himself and wonders if perhaps Sumner has heard of him. Sumner: "Not till this moment." The brilliance of the delivery can perhaps best be illustrated by the fact that FRASIER CRANE then refers to Sumner as a candidate for "Pompous Ass Of The Year." I repeat: Frasier Crane was stunned by someone else's pomposity. I REST MY CASE.