Yes, that is Levi Johnston, baby daddy to Tripp Palin, former future son-in-law of former future serious human being Sarah Palin. The story of Johnston—plucked from rural semi-poverty and promised to a local aristocrat, only to be cast back into the newly unsatisfying life from which he came—is a sort of Great Expectations for contemporary America, and this nuts commercial shows just how great our expectations are. “Now Levi Johnston…does it with protection,” the voiceover intones. Ha! See, Levi Johnston is famous because he got the governor’s daughter pregnant when he was in, like, high school, right? And that was the same year that the governor suddenly became a candidate for Vice President of the United States, and instead of getting her daughter an abortion and having Levi killed, like the governor of Nevada would have done, she made Levi get engaged, at least until November! Now he’s got a kid and he has to make money to support it, but at the same time he’s nineteen years old and famous for no good reason! So, you know, nuts commercial! If only that commercial could be broadcast backwards in time and viewed by the Levi Johnston of two years ago, maybe the shouted question, “how’s the baby?” could serve as a useful warning instead of a chilling reminder.
I assume the original version of this commercial had Johnston laying a condom over a pistachio before smashing it with his hand, then grimacing as he picks a few edible morsels from a smear of shells and lubricant.* As it is, the role of the condom is played by Tank Jones, who is Johnston’s new bodyguard/manager/publicist and an employee of the Rex Butler law firm in Anchorage, Alaska. According to Renata Espinosa in the Daily Beast, Jones has been schooling Johnston in the ways of Hollywood and “reminding him to be open-minded about the different types of people he might encounter. Tank is the ultimate 21st-century version of an American father: multicultural and media-savvy.” Presumably, that makes Levi the penultimate 21st-century American father: two thousand miles away and pursuing “some type of career in Hollywood, whether it be acting or appearing on a reality show.”*
This last aspiration seems somewhat odd, since Johnston already basically participated in a reality show in 2008. Whoever Levi Johnston was when he first convinced his girlfriend that you can only get pregnant, like, three days out of the month, we never saw him. We saw the Levi Johnston of semi-scripted television, where sex, love and marriage are all the same thing and having a child your senior year of high school is a responsible choice. The cognitive dissonance between the Levi Johnston who loved hunting, hockey and banging the governor’s daughter and the Levi Johnston who wanted to start a family at age nineteen must have been enormous and jarring—almost as jarring as the actual baby crying in the background. What did Levi Johnston say to himself immediately after he left the big, bright room where he told his pregnant girlfriend’s mom and John McCain that, deep in his heart, he really wanted to get married and help them run for President? He had to believe it was true, kind of, but he also had to realize that he was living every teenage boy’s worst nightmare.
It’s ironic, then, to hear the strategy that Tank Jones has adopted to help Levi Johnston embrace his new life as an entertainment-industry vampire. “What we did was, we came up with an alter ego, Ricky Hollywood,” Jones explains. According to Espinosa, “when Levi Johnston is in L.A. with Tank…and wearing bedazzled T-shirts that say ‘Go Girl’ on them, that’s not Levi you’re seeing.” Except that is Levi Johnston we’re seeing, just like it’s Levi Johnston who got paid thousands of dollars to make a joke about accidentally conceiving his daughter in a nuts commercial, and just like it’s Levi Johnson who can’t stop dreaming about being slowly strangled by Ricky Hollywood while Sarah Palin laughs and swats at her vagina with a leather crop.* And, perhaps most disturbing, it’s Levi Johnston we’re making fun of now.
The mechanism that allows Levi Johnston to think of himself as Ricky Hollywood is the same one that lets us think of him as The Kid Who Knocked Up Sarah Palin’s Kid. It’s what makes his pistachio commercial mildly amusing instead of depressing, and what made the original Levi-and-Bristol-are-getting-married story heartwarming instead of terrifying. Make no mistake: it was terrifying for Levi. There’s a real person inside that Go Girl t-shirt—a dumb, irresponsible redneck person, but a person nonetheless. He’s famous now, in the sense that floating around somewhere in America there is a public image of him that he does not fully understand but must conform to in exchange for money. Floating around somewhere in Levi Johnston’s head, though, there is another image—one he probably concocted lying on his back in Bristol Palin’s bed, thinking about what life would be like after high school. Maybe the Levi Johnston he pictured was a dude eating millipedes on Fear Factor and asking his manager what t-shirt to wear next. Maybe he was a decent-looking bachelor who spent a lot of time outdoors and tried to lie as little as possible. Whoever that Levi Johnston was, I can’t watch that commercial without thinking about him, which means I’m pretty much done with pistachios now.