Apatow, Segel look below the belt for laughs

Economists are citing some dire portents of a recession these days, but they’ve missed one indicator I find especially disturbing: The porn business has suddenly gone flaccid.

The drop in porn rentals and sales is worrisome on several fronts: Till now, porn has been a recession-proof business. Further, with the country already in a dispirited mood, the fact that porn has gone limp may indicate a true plunge in consumer confidence.

DVD porn is down between 10% and 30%, depending on which nook and cranny of the business you scrutinize. Joy King, executive vice president of Wicked Pictures, and a smart analyst of the business, says the smallest dropoff is in “couples-friendly porn” — films that embrace something of a storyline. Women account for roughly half of this audience, making their purchases in lingerie boutiques and toy stores (no, not kiddie toys).

By contrast, that sector called the “gonzo” side of the business is in serious need of fiscal Viagra. Guys with an appetite for “gonzo” are going unrequited, which may help account for the closing of many DVD emporiums like the Movie Galleries in the Midwest.

One beneficiary of these trends is online porn — a business that’s lofty in traffic but shriveled in terms of revenue. With sales declining across the landscape, employees at big corporations have a lot more time to check out the three-minute porn clips flashing across their computers. To the serious porn players, some of these clips are beyond hardcore — they’re, well, mega-gonzo.

Porn proprietors are doing what they can to meet their business challenges. Wicked Pictures, for example, is recycling its biggest hits, so customers can acquire “Space Nuts,” “Manhunters” and “Flashpoint” in one svelte — well — package.

At the same time, other producers are cutting production costs and special effects. Since these films already are made on skimpy budgets of $50,000 to $75,000, these cuts are not welcomed by the porn filmmakers. At the same time, some of their actors won’t mind completing their tasks in one take, rather than wrestling through three or four.

Still, veterans of the porn trade are edgy about the downturn. A generation ago, they recall, when authorities cracked down on “Deep Throat” and closed many of the porn palaces, the country promptly fell into a serious recession. Economists attributed this setback to the ups and downs of energy prices, but porn analysts insist other sorts of fluctuations play a more urgent role in consumer confidence.

Members-only club?

There’s a certain dark irony in the fact that, amidst the squeeze in porn, Judd Apatow appears to be on a crusade to defy the code by making the full-frontal phallus an important co-star of all his films. In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the latest release from the Apatow comedic assembly line, there are not only abundant dick jokes but also abundant dicks.

Until recently, the unofficial policy of the MPAA code was that the presence of a penis meant an automatic NC-17 rating. But Apatow, who has scored with films like “Knocked Up,” “Walk Hard,” “Talladega Nights” and “Superbad,” seems increasingly dependent on below-the-belt humor. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” opens with a fairly tight shot of Jason Segel’s member and, as if to push the joke, it closes with yet another one. Apparently Segel doesn’t mind — he wrote the script as well as starred (Segel clearly is plugged into Apatow humor, as a graduate of “Freaks and Geeks”).

Is Apatow merely trying to be naughty? Evidence suggests that the shrewd young comedy writer-director has been successful in attracting the dating crowd — yes, both girls and boys — to his raunchy escapades. Further, testing shows that young women usually laugh at the sight of a pathetic penis.

So that news will send the purveyors of porn into yet another panic. At a time when “gonzo” is fading, “limp” is in. What does that say about the mood of the country?

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