From classroom to hit podcast, Paul Bae is telling stories on every stage

Paul Bae chats with Cold Tea Collective’s Editor-in-Chief Tim Lam about teaching, storytelling, self-discovery, and forging a brave new path for himself.

Podcast veteran Paul Bae has spent his entire career in audio drama telling stories about the supernatural. But ask him if he believes in any of it outside his job and he will give you a flat no.

While the otherworldly creatures in his scripts remain confined to the imagination, the very real formative moments of his life and the people in it frequently make the leap into his fictional world.

At their heart, his stories are grounded in the life-changing moments faced by everyday people — with perhaps an extra Lovecraftian twist.

Photo Credit: Karolina Turek

Those moments show up in much of his work, and trust me when I say Bae has a lifetime of storytelling to pull from. As a former youth pastor, teacher, television host, comedian, and now full-time podcast and television producer, Bae has been charming and captivating audiences of all kinds for a long time. Notably, he co-created and wrote The Black Tapes and The Big Loop, two podcasts that received wide acclaim and have since racked up tens of millions of listens.

Bae also brings his eye for storytelling full circle in his new book, You Suck, Sir, where he revisits his time as a teacher and the many funny conversations he had with his students. He pokes fun at his students, but in a way that shows that he really cares.

The Classroom is a Stage

It started with one fateful mistake Bae made as a student-teacher: assign homework on a Friday. 

“The bell already went so it was one of those situations where they were packing and I’m like, ‘no, no, no, you got homework,’” he says. “And then I hear one kid say, ‘you suck.’ When I turn around and say, ‘Excuse me,’ he then goes, ‘Oh sorry. You suck, sir.’”

Even as he was telling the student not to do that ever again, trying his best not to laugh, Bae was already recording the interaction in his teaching journal. This incident kickstarted his habit of recording the hilarious and sometimes insightful conversations he had with his students over his seven-plus years of teaching, which would form the content and inspire the title of his book. 

A memorable story from the book recalls the time Bae returned to his class after a break from teaching only to find his students not so eager to see him. 

“I come back and I remember all these teachers leaning on their doors, smiling. I’m like, ‘Why is everyone staring at me? What did my students do?’ I look at the name on my sub notes and it says Justin Trudeau,” he says. “The students kept asking when I was going back on the road because they wanted him back as a sub!”

Bae had been on a break to pursue comedy and returning back to teaching reminded him that it was just another stage of sorts. He found that much of the improvisational skills he developed as a comedian to keep people engaged were just as useful as a teacher. He would later take those skills from teaching and comedy to his next stage in the audio world, podcasting.

Chasing The Feeling

Bae was introduced to podcasting when a screenplay he wrote and pitched with co-creator, Terry Miles, was never picked up by a studio. Bae and Miles decided to produce the show themselves if no one else would take it, and turned the script into a podcast, The Black Tapes, about a journalist investigating the paranormal.

Oral storytelling has always come naturally to him. “My mother has always told me I’ve been an oral storyteller. For as long as I remember, even in kindergarten and grade one, kids would always crowd around me when I told them stories,” he says. “It actually makes sense that my first success was through podcasting, because it’s an oral medium, as opposed to screenwriting.”

Bae emphasizes that good storytelling isn’t always about the specifics and details, it’s about hitting a feeling and leading your audience to share in that emotion with you. 

“What story can I tell that ends on this emotion so that the person takes off their headphones, and they feel what I feel, which is basically what a lot of writers want to do. They want you to feel what they feel,” he says.

Photo credit: Paul Bae on Instagram

For episodes of his podcast, The Big Loop, he would even start with a song that invoked the feeling he wanted to end with before writing any of the plot details.

Those deeper emotions are often impossible to describe. How do you explain the feeling of immense sorrow? Or profound joy? Bae’s stories do their best to grasp at the invisible and pull it a little closer to the listener.

“I don’t know how to explain it, that’s why I tell stories about it to show you. I’m not a philosopher, I’m a storyteller,” Bae says. He stops at trying to decipher feelings because that is not the point; he simply leads you to experience them for yourself.

Choosing Joy

The search for meaning is a common theme that shows up in Bae’s stories, from his work on The Big Loop to the character of Dr. Strand in The Black Tapes, a skeptical paranormal investigator. 

“Ghosts stand as a good metaphor for the things we chase,” he says.

Often his characters, in their own ways, are looking for something greater than themselves only to realize that the resolution they seek is already in front of them and it’s up to them to pick up the pieces.

Photo credit: Paul Bae on Instagram

It comes from a trying time in his own life where many of the assumptions and beliefs Bae previously held came crashing down and he had to find a new sense of purpose for himself.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out their own narrative. And sometimes the narrative is a thing where it helps to have someone give us our narrative, as opposed to building it out of scratch,” he says. “And I became a person who had to build it out of scratch.”

That insight did not always come easy to him. When he was a youth pastor many years ago, Bae thought he found meaning from his faith, but after attending seminary school and leaving with more unsatisfactory questions than answers he realized it wasn’t for him.

His departure from the church was a painful time of questioning and introspection, but he emerged from it with a greater understanding of where his joy came from and how he wanted to build his story.

“I realized joy is in the people I’m with, joy is in the work that I do, and joy is in the things I do for others and they do for me,” Bae says. “Knowing how it all ends gives the rest of life so much meaning and I have a choice in how I want to experience it. And I choose joy. Real joy just soaks down to the bones, it’ll take you to the next moment and it’s a difference.”

Telling Your Story

“I’d never thought I’d see the day where being Korean is a plus [in this industry],” Bae mentions in reference to Bong Joon-ho’s historic Best Picture win for Parasite at the Academy Awards. 

“In the 70s I’d get called a Chinaman and Chink. No one even knew what Koreans were,” he recalls. But suddenly Bong’s win opened up doors for Bae and he booked no less than 19 meetings in Los Angeles that month to pitch his shows.

Growing up in a mostly white population was a regular reminder that he was different, even as the kind of person who easily gets along with most people. That outsider perspective ignited a fiery drive to prove himself and work harder than everybody around him.

Photo credit: Paul Bae on Instagram

“It’s not enough just to be as good as them, I need to be better than them,” Bae explains, if he ever wanted to get noticed.  “I needed to start writing because no one’s going to cast me in anything. There’s not going to be any Asian stories told unless I start telling them so I started training myself in writing screenplays.”

But that relentless drive didn’t come without some drawbacks. Bae openly talks about a tumultuous period in his life where he had a bit of a “chip on his shoulder” and he credits his friends who showed him grace and humility for helping him grow out of it.

How far he has come. With more than a couple of successful podcasts under his belt, a newly signed multi-series deal with Spotify, and a hint of a TV deal in the works, Bae has written himself a universe of stories to inhabit but he is nowhere near ready to stop exploring.

“One day, I’ll write a story that makes me think I couldn’t have done any better,” he says. “But I’m not there yet and that’s what is so exciting.”

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