A spit take is a comic device that illustrates an exaggerated reaction of shock. For example, while a man leisurely enjoys a cup of coffee—while reading the paper, or watching television—his daughter approaches him. Just as he takes a sip of hot coffee, she announces that she’s getting married. The man, obviously shocked by this unexpected piece of news, spits out his drink, then gasps, “What?!”
This is the spit take. The word ‘spit’ has obvious references; ‘take’ is a technical term among performers to mean a very strong reaction to surprising piece of news. (Hence the phrase ‘ double take’ when one is forced to take a second look, in disbelief.)
The spit take requires perfect timing to pull off, and has been used by generations of comedians (and a couple of clowns, too!) to generate big laughs from the audience. Clowns are fond of taking a huge gulp of water just before another whacks him at the back of his head. Naturally, he spits it out at another clown, which only makes the joke even funnier.
Like all good humor, the spit take is actually based on a real reaction. Every person has had one experience of hearing about shocking news just as they’re about to swallow food or water. Unfortunately, it’s not as funny when it happens to you—or to the person who happens to be sitting across you, or given the job of cleaning up the food. The lesson: unless it’s a comic sketch, don’t give any shocking news until after the meal.