Feschuk: Playboy is losing its shirt—and not in the good way

He was testament to the power of the human spirit, and the resilience of the human penis

Forget the credit panic and sinking house prices. Ignore the melting ice caps and soaring food prices. Want a real sign that the apocalypse is imminent?

Playboy is losing its shirt, and not in the good way where there are sometimes twins involved.

Yes, that Playboy. You might ask yourself: how does a company lose a million bucks a month publishing pictures of naked ladies? Have futures contracts for garter belts skyrocketed? Has the cartel controlling the production of silicone gel scaled back implant production? Did Charlie Sheen allow his 2,000 subscriptions to lapse?

What matters is that the stock of Playboy Enterprises Inc. is in free fall—and even the company’s iconic founder is not immune to the effects of the crisis. Word is that Hugh Hefner has been forced to downsize his harem of fake-blond, fake-breasted ladies, scale back the number of parties he throws at Playboy Mansion, and—in a sign that the situation is truly dire—get dressed for the first time since 1978.

(On the bright side, the sudden dearth of social events has allowed maintenance staff to finally clean out the grotto, Playboy’s age-old symbol of carnal debauchery, where they found a variety of discarded swimsuits and Landers sisters.*)

How bad are things? Here are a few financial snapshots—translated from the tortured language of corporate reports to simple English—that give a sense of the state of affairs at Playboy:

Playboy: “Revenues decreased $12.3 million, or 14 per cent, for the quarter . . . Our publishing and domestic entertainment businesses continue to face unprecedented change in the way consumers access and use media content.”

Translation: The so-called “Internet” is giving away boobies for free.

Playboy: “At June 30, 2008, we had $25.6 million in cash and cash equivalents.”

Translation: “Cash equivalents” include Hugh Hefner’s naughty bits, which were dipped in bronze in 1983 and carry a scrap-metal value of $37.

Playboy: “We believe we are making good strategic progress in streamlining our operations and improving the future performance [through] reductions in overhead.”

Translation: All Playmates now required to arrive at photo shoot pre-airbrushed.

To the young, Playboy’s decline may seem inconsequential. After all, Hugh Hefner is these days little more than the personification of perversion. He’s the world’s dirtiest old man—a creepy, Viagra-fuelled octogenarian lamely pawing at buxom young ladies and . . . wait, when I type it, it sounds like a bad thing.

But for the longest time Hef was the epitome of cool, an icon of success and sophistication, a testament to the power of the human spirit and the resilience of the human penis.

Hefner started Playboy magazine in 1953 with only $8,000 (borrowed from his mom) and an erection (presumably his own). Over the decades, he had a profound impact on American culture, in that contributing to the destruction of something is technically “a profound impact.” Rich, respected, surrounded at all times by busty lady friends, Hefner bestrode the world like a smoking-jacketed colossus. Men wanted to be him. Women wanted to be on him.

But Hef is now in his dotage, one of the few men in America who can credibly refer to John McCain as “a whippersnapper.” And the company he built—run today by his daughter—is struggling to adapt to a world in which nudity, once rare and tantalizing and hidden inside my tree fort, is served up nightly by drunken young starlets clumsily exiting their luxury automobiles.

How desperate is Playboy? So desperate that it’s actually starting up a gay-male video-on-demand service in the United States. Playboy going gay—someone had better tell Hef before he discovers the hard way that that’s not Miss February in the hot tub.

To be fair, Playboy is also starting up a heterosexual video-on-demand service, which it says will “focus on real people in unusual or novel sexually oriented situations.” Question: in the age of the Internet, what could possibly qualify as a “novel” sexually oriented situation? Sex while pole-vaulting over a tank of sharks and the sharks are dressed as the Village People and also the sharks are doing it? Would that qualify as novel? Because I just happen to have a screenplay here with me if you want to take a—no, of course, you’re a busy man, Mr. Spielberg. I’ll just finish making your Orange Julius.

The bottom line is, nothing short of a cover featuring Sarah Palin, Tina Fey and the words “naked together” could likely revive the fortunes of Playboy. And that’s weirdly kind of sad. The world has passed Hugh Hefner by.

And gentlemen, I ask of you: if Hef is doomed, what hope can there be for any of us for the future or the possibility that the maid might show up without pants?

*Reference incomprehensible to anyone under the age of 38.

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