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A man is sitting at a breakfast table, reading the paper and sipping a cup of coffee. As he takes a large sip, his wife tells him she's pregnant. The man promptly spits out his mouthful of coffee in a giant spray, then sputters out an exasperated "WHAT?!". In the world of entertainment, this would be called a spit take, a comedic technique in which a performer deliberately spits out his or her beverage in reaction to shocking news delivered by another performer. When timed perfectly, a spit take lets the audience know exactly how shocked the spitter really is.
In terms of physical comedy, the technique is a very old comedic device. Although stage directions may leave out the notation for a spit take, it is a popular improvisational gimmick whenever a performer wants to exaggerate his or her reaction for comedic effect. A strong reaction to an unexpected or shocking piece of dialogue is known in the entertainment world as a take. A performer may look twice at another character, for example, in a reaction known as a double take. The spit take would be another example of a comedic take a performer could use during a scene or sketch.
The technique is especially popular during clown performances, where a clown could take a large drink of water and wait for another performer to strike him unexpectedly. The result would be a large spray of water, possibly hitting yet another clown and generating even more laughs. This kind of physical spit take would be more of a slapstick reaction rather than one caused by a sudden or shocking bit of dialogue.
There is also the shock of recognition associated with the technique. Many people have experienced moments in their real lives where they reacted instantly to shocking news while eating or drinking. A real world spit take isn't always the most pleasant experience, however, since food may fly in all directions and drink may find its way into the person's nose. This is why it behooves bearers of shocking news in real life to make sure the recipient is not in a position to perform a spit take.
Performers generally rehearse the timing of the technique so that it appears spontaneous and genuine. The reaction shouldn't be telegraphed to the audience before the triggering line is delivered. A good spit take should convey complete and utter shock on the part of the spitter, since ultimately it is his or her entire reaction that sells the moment to the audience. Because it can be a very messy affair, it should be used sparingly but effectively during a stage performance.
It ought to be noted that utilizing this spit take in a modern movie would scream WEAK writing or at the very least unimaginative direction. It's simply been overdone!