Race. Gender. Sex. Nothing is off-limits (and it’s all funny) in ‘Unprotected Sets’

Meet Rocky Dale Davis. He’s from Alabama. He’s a white guy with a short haircut and a trademark southern drawl. Facing a small crowd in a comedy club, Rocky takes the microphone and starts his set by addressing the obvious. Things are not as they seem. “I’m not racist,” he tells the crowd, “I just look and sound racist.” 

Welcome to “Unprotected Sets” on MGM+®, where seemingly every act touches on one of the things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company. Race, gender, and sex are all topics du jour. And that’s by design. Executive producer Wanda Sykes doesn’t shy away from any topic in her own comedy and she pulls no punches with the comics on “Unprotected Sets.” 

Each episode gives a comedian their moment in the spotlight, but each has a story to share when they’re interviewed in a one-on-one setting. 

“We went out and found a bunch of comics who were right there but just needed a little extra exposure to get them on,” Sykes said on the entertainment talk show “Sway’s Universe”. “But we also go behind the scenes and you find out a little bit more about them.”

Raul Sanchez hit hard in the first season, which is streaming on MGM+. He talks about growing up in Texas as an undocumented immigrant. Then he entered the military.

“Talk about taking American jobs, huh?” he asked the crowd during his set on “Unprotected Sets.” 

The thing is, Sanchez’s life doesn’t seem like fodder for jokes. He did three tours with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s talked openly about the PTSD and crushing anxiety he experienced after leaving the military. And, improbably, Sanchez’s military career has become excellent comedic fodder. 

Sykes said on “Sway’s Universe” that Sanchez is a type of comic that feeds off dark experiences for their work.

“After 9/11, he joined the military. He became a citizen. But when he came back, like most of our vets, deeply depressed and suicidal,” she said. “He saw a billboard advertising standup, he saw it and said it was one of the first times he’d laughed in years. His comedy just reflects all that pain and all that stuff.”

“Unprotected Sets” is fearless in choosing comedians. Granted, the comedians are usually not household names. Kira Soltanovich, Corey Rodrigues, and Calvin Evans are among the comics featured in Season 2, which debuted in the fall of 2020. The only entrance requirement for the show is funny.

It’s hardly the first comedy show to talk about race. Race has been fodder for jokes for decades. You can draw a line from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock to Sykes. None was afraid to talk about race and all of them went on to success as actors in movies and TV shows.

But “Unprotected Sets” isn’t fixated on any one topic. Race is a frequent topic, but the show finds familiar fodder talking about food, sex, and politics. But within those topics, the comics still find room to trod on fresh ground.

The show proudly gives Daniel Webb, a gay fifth-generation Texan, a platform. There are comics who survived cancer and jokes about politics. That’s almost a given, considering Sykes’ outspoken nature. She was quick to call out Rosanne Barr after a racist tweet in 2018. On “Sway’s Universe,” she talked about a show in New Jersey that got combative with about 12 audience members who eventually walked out of her show. She was in Bruce Springsteen territory but she ran into a pack of conservatives who apparently bought tickets to her show just to heckle her in 2018.

“First of all, I’m a Black lesbian, what the f— are you doing at my show in the first place?” she asked. “You know, you are just human and you made bad decisions. So you voted for Trump and now you come to my show? What the hell?

“I bet you eat sushi on Mondays, too. ‘Oh, give me the fresh stuff.’ What the hell?”

Fans of Sykes’ unabashed style will catch glimpses of it in the comics on “Unprotected Sets.” When they talk about sex, they’re unafraid to make jokes about themselves. But race might be the unofficial topic of choice among all the comics. 

But perhaps none are funnier than Zainab Johnson, who talked about going to see a romantic comedy at the movies. She ran into a friend at the box office and instead got dragged into “The Birth of a Nation,” which, according to her, is a two-and-a-half-hour slog about slavery. 

Sometimes, she said, you just want to see “Bridget Jones’ Baby.” Like Rocky Dale Davis, the southerner who looks and sounds like a racist, the comics of “Unprotected Sets” revel in blowing up our expectations.

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