Most have felt the crushing blow of rejection in their career, and usually, that blow is delivered from those in power. Call it the establishment, the power structure, or pretend you're a groovy counterculture militant and call it "the man." It doesn't matter. Often, finding success means being handed the keys to the castle by those already in power. And sometimes they say no.
But sometimes, instead of rejection leading to failure, it's merely the catalyst for people to go out on their own. Instead of trying to thrive within the existing system, they changed the game. Some people find success eventually, after years of hard work, but the people we're examining here started something new after being rejected by the established means to success.
#5. Jon Stewart Gets Passed Over For a Standard Late Night Show and Reinvents Television
Jon Stewart recently announced that after 17 years, he would be leaving The Daily Show. For those raised on The Daily Show, perhaps that just seems like some normal changing of the guard. Maybe the show has been around for as long as you've been allowed to stay up to 11 p.m., but the story of Stewart and The Daily Show is important. Put on your Doc Martens and long T-shirts worn under normal T-Shirts and let me tell you a story of the '90s:
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No, this article has nothing to do with Soundgarden, but I thought it would be fun to have two of my heroes in one entry.
Back then, Jon Stewart was just a talented, semitically handsome stand-up comic. For my money, his Unleavened and Chris Rock's Bring the Pain are the two best comedy specials of that decade. In 1998, CBS had an opening for a late night talk show to follow David Letterman's. This was the break Stewart was waiting for. He'd excelled as far as he could as a stand-up, his movie career was not taking off after a series of lackluster supporting roles in Big Daddy, and Playing By Heart. He needed this. Except CBS decided not to select him for this opening, opting instead for Craig Kilborn. You might remember Kilborn from Old School, where he was the womanizing prick who seemed not at all to be acting.
Kilborn won the slot and hosted The Late Late Show, doing an absolutely predictable, uneventfully standard job at a completely conventional talk show, until he retired in 2004 to pursue becoming less significant on a full-time basis. Jon Stewart was left with Kilborn's leftovers, namely The Daily Show. It could have been humiliating to not only lose out to Kilborn but to be given the job Kilborn no longer wanted. But that's not how it panned out. Jon Stewart completely changed The Daily Show, and in doing so changed late night television.
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Pictured above: Kilborn, approximately 20 years after he no doubt bullied some kid in a lunchroom.
When Stewart took over The Daily Show, it was very much a parody of news magazine shows like Dateline. And while it certainly was home to some very talented writers and performers, they were there in the service of a show that mixed SNL Weekend-Update-style headline jokes with celeb interviews and parodies of news magazine puff pieces. Stewart made the show political, hiring Ben Karlin of The Onion and shepherding monster talents like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Jon Oliver, and Larry Wilmore to greater notoriety. Colbert (who worked under Kilborn as well) has stated that Stewart encouraged him to have a political viewpoint.
In 2009, Time magazine found Stewart to be television's most trusted journalist. Suddenly, for the first time in 40 years, the most important show in late night was not a celebrity talk show. Suddenly Saturday Night Live was not the only place for comedy writers and performers to aspire. Jon Stewart took his rejection from the standard path for a stand-up comic and completely revamped late night television, becoming this generation's Walter Cronkite and Lorne Michaels rolled up in one.
#4. Jay Z Gets Rejected By Every Label and Starts His Own
Jay Z is a rap institution. Hip hop royalty. And perhaps most impressively, he's married to Beyonce, despite being diagnosed as a child with a severe case of "boringface."
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Stare at this picture for five minutes, then stare at a wall and try to remember what Jay Z looks like.
But even though Jay Z is now a rap institution, back in '94, he couldn't get a record deal. And sure, lots of people can't get record deals, but you'd think Jay Z would have had a better shot than most. He was featured on a popular posse cut of "Show and Prove" on Big Daddy Kane's album Daddy's Home. Indeed, Jay Z was even Kane's hype man, coming out and freestyling verses during his costume changes. You'd think a guy with that kind of a hookup and so much talent would have gotten someone's attention, but no. Instead, 1994 rap was filled with the monstrous talents of the 69 Boyz, Domino, and the ever-important Craig Mack.
"Hi. You might know me from that one song your older bother has and doesn't play any more."
Unable to score a record deal, Jay Z started his own label, selling CDs out of his car. (For younger readers, CDs are magical downloads that exist on enchanted circles that fit into that slot on the dashboard in cars.) He then started Roc-A-Fella Records, ultimately landing a distribution deal with Priority Records and releasing Reasonable Doubt in 1996, which reached number 23 on the Billboard 200. From there, Jay Z's recording career took off, as did several of his other entrepreneurial endeavors.
How successful did Jay Z become? Well, in 2001, he plead guilty to stabbing record producer Lance Rivera, a second-degree felony, and was sentenced to only three years probation. That's success! Also, he gets to have sex with Beyonce, is a multimillionaire, and is one of the most important rappers of his generation. All because he went out on his own when the establishment said "No," much like how he also kept going when Rivera presumably said, "No, please don't stab me."
#3. Unable to Find Investors, Robert Townsend Makes Hollywood Shuffle On Credit Cards
In 1980, at the age of 19, Eddie Murphy rocketed to stardom as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. His television success quickly transitioned to film stardom with 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. But not every young black comic actor of the '80s had such a quick road to success. Enter stand-up/actor Robert Townsend. Indeed, he also auditioned for the 1980 season of SNL, only to lose out to Murphy. And although he scored some bit parts, Townsend struggled to find mainstream success in Hollywood. Accordingly, he wrote a comedy about his struggle called Hollywood Shuffle, but couldn't find any financing. No one was interested in funding the movie, so he was forced to do it himself. With credit cards.
In producing Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend charged $40,000 on 15 different personal credits. He bought wardrobe on his Saks card, and in lieu of salaries, he filled crew members' cars with gas on a Mobil card. And he used the last of his credit to to host a buffet at a screening to attract a distributor, which he ultimately did. Hollywood Shuffle grossed over $5 million (50 times its budget) and established Townsend as a bankable commodity.