It used to be that one experienced a certain level of embarrassment when purchasing Playboy, owing to the spreads that the gal behind the counter deemed inappropriate for a sheepish gang of 14-year-olds (not so inappropriate, of course, that she didn't willingly accept the $3.95). Twenty years later, that same purchase still blushes the cheeks, but for an entirely different reason: I don't want the newsstand flunky, the people on line at Barnes & Noble or anybody else mistaking me for the kind of guy who would spend actual U.S. currency on a copy of Playboy. Seriously. I'd sooner be identified as a Guns & Ammo reader. At least in that case I'd have the solace of knowing that my liquefy-Bambi leanings have drifted into the political and societal mainstream.

If you were to take a guess as to who/what constitutes Playboy's readership nowadays, what would it be? I ask because I honestly have no clue. College kids eager to inhale a vague whiff of adulthood? Chest-hair-laden former swingers who signed up for lifetime subscriptions back in 1976? People who want to see the nether regions of the gal whose "Monday Night Football" reporting made one long for the days of Howard Cosell's gentle racism? The January Playboy seeks to accommodate each of these groups and more, making it one of the most all-over-the-place issues I've ever perused.

That's not a good thing. A high-minded chat with GM product development guru Robert Lutz sits inches away from a punchline-free cartoon bearing the caption, "I think what made it so special was you humming the Christmas carol when I came...!" A tossed-off page devoted to 2005 video game awards sits next to a Q&A with "master of American postmodernism" Robert Coover--because if there's anything that floats the boat of dorm-room "Doom" zombies, it's books that use "the archetypes of childhood... to elaborate anxieties that threaten American culture." These and other equally severe juxtapositions risk alienating those few readers who haven't already been scared away by the editorial schizophrenia.

In several places, Playboy feels as much a relic of an era and mentality long past as mutton chops and Leo Sayer. "The World of Playboy" and "Hangin' With Hef" collections of celeb shots would be funny as hell if they weren't so depressing--they oughta bottle the photo of Hef with Roger Ebert and market it as libido suppressant. "Man track" boasts a little bit o' travel and a little bit o' booze; "after hours" offers a punch recipe and a story on actor Derek Luke. If you can identify the thread connecting the items that litter these sections, you're of hardier editorial stock than I.

Yet after you wade through all this detritus, the January Playboy still offers four or five must-read stories. The mag features eminently diverting fiction from Jay McInerney and John Updike (not the latter's best stuff, but grade-C Updike still trumps even the most lyrical Joyce Carol Oates spew). The issue also casts light on kid author Shel Silverstein's randy side and offers the smartest piece on the future of the domestic auto business written in four or five years. And the "Playboy Interview" with Mark Cuban is wildly entertaining-- though, to be fair, he might be the most accessible rich guy in the history of moguldom. Don't believe me? Try e-mailing him through the Dallas Mavericks Web site.

As for the girls, well, boobies are boobies. Since I won't get the chance to fill out a Playmate questionnaire/"data sheet" myself unless the Western world loses its collective mind, I hereby present my ambitions (to become either a successful model/actress or bioethicist), turn-ons (hot fires on cold nights, a sense of humor, corn) and turnoffs (cold fires on hot nights, mean people, apostrophes, getting beaten with crowbars).

I have no idea what I'd do if I were charged with revitalizing Playboy. I think there are two options: One, massively dumb it down--ape the approach of juvenile boobs-'n-giggles sites like and, and bid a fond adieu to its last semblance of high-society pretension. Or two, class it up--ditch the video-game reviews and anything else that screams "under 35," poach GQ's fashion editor and a few of Sound & Vision's high-end home theater experts, and deliver increasingly chaste pictorials to guys who base their sense of virility on proximity to young naked chicks.

As currently constituted, Playboy is a publication strafing about 13 different audiences with 38 semi-related editorial approaches. This has got to end, even if it means ousting Hef in an editorial palace (er, mansion) coup. It's masculine sacrilege to even suggest this, but I can't imagine reading Playboy for anything except the articles.

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