Franklin County state Senate candidate Dustin Tanner is facing criticism for a 2015 comedy set in which he joked about being “lucky he didn’t commit sexual assault” at a dental appointment. In another joke from the same set, Tanner joked about buying cannabis from students at the high school where he worked.
Two clips of Tanner’s routine resurfaced Thursday morning when Republican operative Shayne Spence posted clips on Twitter.
Tanner, a Democrat, is hoping to beat Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) or Rep. Corey Parent (R-St. Albans) for one of Franklin County’s two Senate seats. Brock’s seatmate, Sen. Carolyn Branagan (R-Franklin), is retiring at the end of her term.
Tanner said he was the one who originally posted the videos online, shortly after he performed the set as part of a stand-up comedy class. He took them down soon after announcing his run for Vermont Senate after someone contacted him anonymously and took offense.
In the first clip posted Thursday, Tanner describes a dental appointment.
“The dentist, I swear to God, had the biggest tits ever. So she’s leaning over me like this, right? Like, I’m in the chair. She’s like this. Like right over me,” Tanner began, bending forward. “At this point, I can’t feel my face. I’m just like ahhh. My tongue is sticking out literally in between her breasts.”
Tanner imitated the muffled sounds of a dental patient trying to speak. He said the dentist was “going at it” pulling on his tooth.
“Like she was trying to win a prize at the state fair — of my tooth. So yeah, got out of the dentist that day, I was lucky I didn’t commit sexual assault.”
The joke got some laughs from the 2015 audience at the Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington, and it wasn't the first time Tanner had told it. He said he had run it by women he knew, who he said thought it was funny.
“At the time, it had received generally positive reviews, nobody had really sounded the alarm,” he said. The joke was "completely fictional," Tanner said, adding that his dentist is a man.
It wasn’t until he received an email early in the campaign that Tanner revisited the videos.
“A spam account which I now realize is probably now Shayne Spence … emailed me and said, ‘These videos are offensive,’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry you think they are offensive,’” Tanner recalled, adding that he offered to discuss the videos further with the person.
After his exchange with the anonymous emailer (Spence denied contacting Tanner), the candidate watched the set again and said he was disappointed in his joke.
“It was not funny anymore, and it was really not funny to begin with, and I really regretted that joke, and I really want to take that joke back,” Tanner said. “It was a bad joke.”
Spence, who currently works on House Minority Leader Don Turner's (R-Milton) campaign for lieutenant governor, said he downloaded video of the comedy set in June.
“When I heard [Tanner] was running, I did a little bit of a crawl across the channels and I looked at some of the videos on YouTube that were there at the time when he announced he was running,” Spence said.
Spence said he downloaded “the stuff I thought was compelling.”
He uploaded the video of Tanner’s dentist joke Thursday morning. He said he was motivated by national headlines about sexual assault.
“With the conversation that’s going on,” Spence said, “I kind of thought that it was something that couldn’t remain in the dark.”
Spence later tweeted another video of Tanner, who at the time worked at Enosburg Falls High School, joking in the same 2015 set about difficulties finding a cannabis dealer.
“It’s complicated, right? You can’t just, you know, go buy weed. It’s not like cigarettes or alcohol. You have to put in the work and do the research,” Tanner said. “I work at a high school. Like half the kids are smoking, right? Why don’t I just buy from them?”
Tanner, an IT technician, took a job at Milton High School in January 2017.
Spence said the joke crossed a line.
“When you’re suggesting that you’re buying drugs from teenage children and you’re working with those children, there’s just a few things that I think we can agree shouldn’t be joked about,” Spence said. “And I want to be sure that people, at least in my county, know about it before they go to the polls.”
Tanner said that joke was also made up.
“I’ve only smoked pot in my life like nine or 10 times,” he said. “I am a heavy advocate for it, but I am not a heavy partaker myself. I just don’t like smoking. That was a hypothetical joke about how kids do these things.”
Tanner said he was shaken when Spence posted the videos Thursday and emphasized that “while making stupid jokes about sexual assault, I have always been respectful toward any female I’ve met.”
The candidate said he’s been strongly influenced by women.
“My dad was basically not in my life. My stepfather was always kind of a dick growing up to me," he said. “A lot of the people who raised me were strong, independent women."
Tanner said he’s already contacted Planned Parenthood — the organization’s PAC endorsed him Wednesday — to discuss the clip.
“I messed up here, and I’m gonna own this one,” he said.