Why “Beef” Creator Lee Sung Jin Lied For Years About “Caddyshack” Being His Favorite Movie (Exclusive)

The writer and director found his biggest success after he decided to be true to himself, telling PEOPLE: "Why am I trying to be something that I'm not?"

<p>Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for IMDb</p> Lee Sung Jin poses in the IMDb Portrait Studio at the 2024 Independent Spirit Awards on February 25, 2024 in Santa Monica, California.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for IMDb

Lee Sung Jin poses in the IMDb Portrait Studio at the 2024 Independent Spirit Awards on February 25, 2024 in Santa Monica, California.

Early in his career, when Lee Sung Jin was a writer on shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and 2 Broke Girls, he felt compelled to lie when asked what his favorite movie of all time was.

“I would say Caddyshack because I heard that from other working White male writers,” the Beef creator tells PEOPLE of the 1980 film, starring Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. “And I don’t particularly love that film, but I was acting in a way that felt disingenuous with who I actually am.”

Born in South Korea to a stay-at-home mom and professor dad, Lee and his family moved to the U.S. when he was a baby and lived “all over,” including Louisiana and Minnesota, before returning to Seoul from third through fifth grades. They later returned to the States, residing in Texas and Iowa.

<p>Courtesy Warner Bros.</p> (L-R) Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield in 'Caddyshack'.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

(L-R) Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield in 'Caddyshack'.

“When you move around a lot, you are sort of forced to train that muscle in your brain where you’re hyper-observant of your surroundings and people because you’re trying to fit in as fast as possible,” says Lee, who eventually went to the University of Pennsylvania, majored in economics and worked at Morgan Stanley and Bear Stears before realizing that investment banking wasn’t for him.

Lee then worked temp jobs in New York City and Los Angeles to support himself while learning to write for TV. Eventually, he got his big break on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Despite the steady gig, the self-imposed pressure to fit in was getting to him. “I was in a writing partnership and we were doing quite well for ourselves, but we were operating in the harder comedy space, in broadcast especially,” he says. “I contorted myself to try to fit what other people wanted of me, not only in my writing but in my daily life. Looking back, I often found myself trying to over-assimilate, over people please, [even] opinions I had about my favorite movies, I would lie.”

<p>Andrew Cooper/Netflix</p>

Andrew Cooper/Netflix

Related: Steven Yeun Says His 'Beef' Costar Ali Wong Kept 'Good Vibes' on Set Despite Show's Tense Subject Matter

The strain of not being his true self caused a “breaking point” in 2013. “A lot of the stuff in Beef is ripped from the headlines of my life in terms of mental health and some of my struggles,” says Lee. “And that rock bottom made me reevaluate why I'm even here on this planet, why I want to write. It allowed me to really take a hard look at myself and try to figure out what is important to me and who am I really. Why am I trying to be something that I'm not?”

It wasn’t until after a decade-long journey of therapy, reading and introspection that Lee felt the confidence to write Beef, the acclaimed 2023 dark comedy starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as two adversaries in the aftermath of an explosive road rage incident. “It’s definitely the most ‘me’ thing I’ve ever written,” he says.

Beef has since scored eight wins at the 2023 Emmys, and that authenticity has become his North Star when choosing projects—and making sure others get the opportunity to tell their stories. “I am a Korean American man who has spent most of his life in the U.S., and so a lot of my truths will sit in that space,” says Lee, who is a screenwriter on Marvel's upcoming Thunderbolts movie. “I never saw [AAPI writers] in the room coming up, and so I’m trying to do my part to make the rooms I’m part of have different voices and experience.”



Related: Beef Scores an Awards Threepeat, Topping Emmys Limited Series Category After Globes and Critics' Choice Wins

Lee hopes that continuing to tell diverse stories onscreen will help others feel less alone.

“One of the best parts about this Beef run is…different people coming up and telling me that they feel seen through the show or that they've experienced similar struggles,” he adds. “To hear that other people have gone through that and have reached the other side, is very life-affirming. It makes me feel the most connected I've ever been.”

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Beef is now streaming on Netflix.

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