“Writing Glimpses of Empathy” Lee Sung Jin on Netflix Series ‘Beef’


I was an economics major and I thought I was going to get into investment banking,” says Lee Sung Jin (who also goes by Sonny Lee). “It didn’t feel right at any point of my entire college career,” jokes the screenwriter. “I was really flailing about, unemployed, temping a lot, and I had gotten into the NBC Page Program.

If you’ve ever seen 30 Rock, this is somewhat the same job Kenneth the Page had, giving studio tours for $10 an hour. “That was my first glimpse into the entertainment industry. I loved TV and movies, as we all do, and I thought, why not give it a go?

Lee taught himself screenwriting through reading books and blogs. “I started staying in most weekends. When you find your passion, you can’t help but keep working at it. So, in my early twenties, I discovered this might be a career path.

Today, Lee has credits on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Outsourced, 2 Broke Girls, Silicon Valley, and Dave. Most recently, he’s the Creator of the Netflix dramedy series, Beef, that stars Ali Wong, Steven Yeun, Maria Bello, Andrew Santino, and David Chow.

Writing Partners

Earlier in Lee’s career, he had a writing partner named Patrick Walsh. “He was very funny and very comedic. I naturally followed his lead,” says Lee. “We both enjoyed sitcoms quite a bit and I think the first thing we wrote was a Scrubs spec.

At the time, Lee says he didn’t give his career much thought, at least in terms of milestones and what might come next. “You don’t think about writing partnerships either. No one tells you you’re going to be deeply, intricately entangled for the rest of your life,” he jokes about the marriage of writing scripts together. 

You don’t do much thinking, or at least we didn’t. But then you gain traction or success, get agents, move out here, and you’re very entrenched in a comedy-comedy track. But I learned a lot from those early comedy days. It’s a great training ground for young writers because there’s a math and formula to comedy writing. I think you absorb those fundamentals, which makes writing something like Beef much easier.”

On those other shows, of course, the job was to match the showrunner or creator’s voice, but Lee started to find his own voice along the way. “There wasn’t a moment. It was a gradual, creeping feeling. Early in any career, you’re copying and mimicking, seeing who has the answers to the test. A lot of my early stuff was just what was working comedically in the zeitgeist at the time.

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Lee Sung Jin. Photo by Charley Gallay/ Getty Images for Netflix

I think slowly, as you get more comfortable as a human in your own skin, your writing starts to reflect who you are. It’s not overnight. It’s a gradual process through a lot of therapy to be okay being me. In the last couple of years, I think I’ve discovered that more.

Part of Lee’s voice comes from an interest in surrealism, which is clear in the series Undone and also Dave, specifically the “Enlightened Dave” episode he wrote with Luvh Rakhe. “That show is fully Dave Burd, but those little things along the way helped me confirm themes I love talking about.

Becoming a Showrunner

These days, with so much content available, screenwriters are becoming showrunners faster than ever. With that in mind, Lee says, “The business kind of forces you — whether you want it or not — to write pilots, set up pilots, so every year I would sell a pilot that didn’t get made.

That made me start to think more about… why isn’t it getting made?, and improve my writing. There’s always a goal of wanting to set up my own thing, but it was definitely a learning process to evolve my writing to make that happen. But in the act of filmmaking, that’s being on set more.

Across his career, the creators of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia let him be on set to capture behind-the-scenes content. Dave Burd brought writers on set to learn all that they could. “But outside of the work experiences, I really made it a point to learn the fundamentals of filmmaking, to learn the basics of why things cut together, where the cameras need to be, how camera and narrative work together. I just tried to immerse myself into people I respect and admire to absorb as much as I can. 

All of these factors, combined with a real life road rage accident, led to the new series, Beef. In regards to being a showrunner, Lee says, “The thing that catches you off guard is time. You never have enough time. You think you’re going to be able to enter production with most of the scripts done and you’ll get to the finale… but it’s very difficult. That caught me off guard.”

There’s stuff I assumed would come through that didn’t, then there’s stuff I thought wouldn’t come through, and it did. So, there’s a lot of things on the page that, on its feet, feel different. I think that’s something where getting more reps in, getting more experience, will help that. Then, there’s the toll it takes on you physically that was surprising. If you don’t have a good routine — diet, movement, rest — everything falls apart very quickly.

The Inspiration for Beef

There was a real life road rage thing that happened. It involved a white SUV, just like the show. It wasn’t that dramatic. It was mostly this guy honking and cursing at me and I was like, ‘Eh, I’m going to follow you,’” jokes Lee. “In my career, I was just like, I’m going to commute home and happen to be behind him.” Coincidentally, they went miles and miles in the same direction. 

That was the initial spark, but then it was about how we’re all so trapped in our subjective realities and we subject so many assumptions onto each other.” The screenwriters ended up chatting with some other friends in the business about this and he was advised to flesh out the idea. 

As he continued down this road, he mentioned the idea to friend Steven Yeun (Nope, The Walking Dead), who was interested in the project, which led to more and more doors opening up. “Having Steven and Ali on as EPs early really helped form these characters and flesh them out in a way that I’ve never done before in the pitch stage.

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Amy (Ali Wong). Photo by Andrew Cooper/ Netflix

The series, built around an Asian-American cast, was somewhat different than the real moment, but ironically, Lee isn’t really thinking of race, at least not at first. “The initial incident involved a middle age white male, so there was half a day where we entertained a Stanley Tucci-type, but it felt very literal, like you had to talk about race, and I didn’t really have interest in that. There are so many other shows doing that so well already.

For me, I enjoy writing character first. I don’t like top-down writing, like having to address identity issues or things like that. I really just want to lose myself [in character]. Who is Danny? Who is Amy? Like, Danny probably grew up in the Korean church and what can we do with that? Amy probably thinks checking all the boxes means marrying into this Japanese, high-art family.

It’s more in exploring character first, that these cultural specificities arise organically, versus trying to lead with that. For me, that works best.

Thinking About Chords & Character 

When Lee comes up with the character, he says the early days are spent “blue-skying,” or allowing his thoughts to carry him in interesting directions. “I’m thinking about Danny and his psychology, people I know, family or friends, things that have happened to me that seem to fit his psychology. You start to get a sense, this anamorphic thing that comes together.

Once you know who these people are, then you can figure out how they relate to one another. I tend to enjoy writing in a song-writing method. You track the chords of a story. So a very common chord progression is G, E minor, C,D,G. So many cheesy pop songs are that. But, what if you do G, E minor, G, E minor, G E minor, do that over and over and you save C, D, G till the very end and that creates a different feeling.

Lee says a lot of the writers’ room is drawing graphs to figure out what “chords” are going to convey the mood they wish to convey. “Once you have that foundation, you can start plopping specificities, anecdotes, textures, and stories on top of that.

With all of that in mind, if one sees the trailer alone, it’s hard to root for either character, as they both appear to be antagonistic, at best. To deal with this idea in the show itself, Lee says, “We wanted to make sure the audience didn’t abandon them, especially early on.

As an example, Lee bought up The Sopranos pilot, where Tony beats someone up but then spends time with ducks in his pool. “That pilot is genius. It’s genius to put the ducks in there. No matter what Tony does, he spends some time caring about those ducks and suddenly, you love this guy.

Similarly, for every asshole thing Amy or Danny does, we wanted to show glimpses of humanity, glimpses of empathy. That’s true of most people in this world. You catch someone at their worst, they’re going to look bad, but if you spend the whole day with them, they’re going to have glimpses of empathy.”

Advice to a Younger Self 

As for final bits of advice, Lee says he wishes he had not spent so much time trying to be someone he’s not or fit in. “Not only from a writing standpoint, but a human standpoint, the more you stretch yourself farther from who you are, that is a disconnect.

Lee continues, “The more you have to wear a mask and be performative, that’s a dissonance you’re creating inside. If you do that too much, at least for me, it can really lead to some crippling breakdowns. I wish I could go back and tell the younger me that you don’t have to do that. You’re okay as you are. There is only you.

That’s the thing I hope younger writers realize. There’s nobody else but you who has your perspective, your life experiences, your thoughts. You are wholly unique and that is really, really powerful. Don’t try to mimic someone else’s opinions. Express your opinion because they are really special.

This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here. 


Brock Swinson

Contributing Writer

Freelance writer and author Brock Swinson hosts the podcast and YouTube series, Creative Principles, which features audio interviews from screenwriters, actors, and directors. Swinson has curated the combined advice from 200+ interviews for his debut non-fiction book 'Ink by the Barrel' which provides advice for those seeking a career as a prolific writer.

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