Did The Danny Thomas Show really invent the spit take?
Danny may be known for it, but we saw Ricky do it first!
It's one of the most dependable laughs in TV and movies: The spit take.
It happens when characters are surprised, grossed out or even sometimes hiding a secret. The glass raises up, the joke is made, the actor's eyes get a little bigger, and suddenly, every home viewer is in the proverbial splash zone. The spit take leaves us chuckling at a gag as old as vaudeville, and it's a trick that eventually made its way to Hollywood, but arguably was splashed to mass success by many of classic television's most seasoned entertainers.
And when it comes to the spit take, the actor Danny Thomas practically owns the term. He started incorporating the spit take into his hit comedy series The Danny Thomas Show (originally known as Make Room for Daddy). Through the show's 11-season run, Thomas did spit takes often, stylizing his version to achieve maximum spray and mastering the gag to the point where everybody in the business agreed his take on the spit take was best. His name eventually became synonymous with "spit take" ("doing a Danny Thomas"), even though we'd been seeing entertainers doing spit takes for years.
So while Danny Thomas didn't invent the spit take, he did make sure that all your favorite sitcoms would find reasons to make an equally big splash with spit takes of their own. Here, we go from the '50s to the '80s, from Ricky Ricardo to Norm from Cheers, giving you a chance to get your feet wet splashing through the puddles of TV history's most glorious spit takes.
1. The Danny Thomas Show
Does the spit take crack you up? TV history credits Danny Thomas for popularizing it and his name went on to become synonymous with the move. We must admit he's one of the best at the spit take in the biz, generating an impressive splash zone few can replicate.
On The Danny Thomas Show, Thomas is said to have perfected the spit take, to the point where it's a running gag on other shows (from The Golden Girls to Late Night with David Letterman) to call it "the Danny Thomas spit take." Pictured here is Thomas' first spit take ever seen on TV.
2. I Love Lucy
Danny Thomas may be known for the spit take, but we saw Ricky Ricardo do it on TV first. Thomas' show premiered in 1953, but in an I Love Lucy episode from 1952, "Fred and Ethel Fight," we saw Ricky spit out his drink when Lucy tries her best to reunite their BFFs after a major fight. In the scene, Lucy calls Ethel a cute young girl when describing Fred's "mystery date" to him, with Fred unaware that Lucy's setting him up with his own wife. It's recognized as a pretty classic use of the spit take now, but when I Love Lucy aired it, Desi's spit take hit the screen well before the man who ultimately popularized it.
3. Three's Company
One of the next TV actors after Danny Thomas to become specifically known for his spit take technique was John Ritter. On Three's Company, his character Jack Tripper has similar outbursts so often, it became a running gag on the show any time the actor lifted a glass. In this episode, "The Older Woman," Jack's aghast to discover that his roommates believe he's not only dating the mother of the older woman he's actually dating, but also that he's planning to marry her! (We'll wait while you clean up after your own spit take.)
Image: DLT Entertainment
Basically every long-running sitcom has worked in a spit take or two before the series ended. Cheers was, of course, no exception, and here we have one from one of our favorite barflies. This spit take from Norm occurs after he suspects Carla has tainted his beer because he offended her, so he sneakily switches drinks with Cliff while Cliff's back is turned. Just as Norm takes a sip, Cliff leans over and apologizes to Carla for something offensive that he said. As soon as Cliff says, "Sorry," Norm spits out his drink.
Even M*A*S*H got in on the fun, taking "say it, don't spray it" to the next level with this spirited attempt by actor Jamie Farr. The gag is that Potter's been gone, and he surprises Klinger when he comes back early. His spit take reminds us a little of those old-fashioned water pumps, spurting out in a fashion more like a stream of water than the fine spray that Thomas or Ritter went for. Points for creativity!
6. Sanford and Son
When it comes to technique, though, we have to give it to Redd Fox on Sanford and Son. In the 1973 episode "Pops 'N' Pals," when Fred Sanford asks what "sangria" means and the answer is "blood," this is an extraordinarily fitting (and hilarious) reaction. A wave of applause for an excellent use of the spit take, Sanford. Danny Thomas would be proud.
Image: Sony Pictures Television
7. Mama's Family
Betty White plays hoity-toity Ellen Harper Jackson on Mama's Family for the episode "Country Club," which actually finds Mama hobnobbing (sorta) with high-class sophisticates. You can understand, then, why Ellen does this phenomenal spit take upon seeing Mama make her entrance at her fancy event.
8. Saved by the Bell
There are plenty of frivolous reasons to work a good spit take into your screenplay, but in the '80s, we started seeing spit takes more closely tied to the plots on our favorite sitcoms. Here on Saved by the Bell, Lisa Turtle dives headfirst into a spit take after cheerleader Kelly Kapowski announces she has a crush on nerdy brainiac Screech.
9. The Golden Girls
Spit takes also started becoming deeper signifiers for TV characterization, including this dripping moment from The Golden Girls in the episode "Letter to Gorbachev." The normally flighty Rose writes a letter that lands her an invitation to share her strategic political views with Mikhail Gorbachev. When this messenger arrives with the invitation, Blanche cannot contain her cola from spraying the messenger.
Image: Disney–ABC Domestic Television
But arguably one of the most touching uses of the spit take was this scene from Frasier in the very first season of the show. Viewers had been watching Dr. Niles Crane seemingly fall for Daphne Moon through 23 episodes when "My Coffee with Niles" finally arrived and Frasier finally asked the question we'd all been dying to hear confirmed: Are you in love with Daphne? Niles' response is perfect, spraying his coffee and spilling the beans while he was at it.
Image: CBS Television Distribution