Stephen Colbert pays emotional tribute to Toby Keith: reveals what he learned from their unlikely, longtime friendship

Country superstar Toby Keith died this week at the age of 62, following a battle with stomach cancer. In the days since, many have paid tribute, including fellow country stars like Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton.

But one of the most heartfelt tributes came from an unlikely source: late night host Stephen Colbert, who got emotional speaking about his “unlikely” friendship with Toby Keith.

During Tuesday’s Late Show, Colbert said he was “shocked and saddened” by the death of Keith, who he called “one of the greats.” The host said he knew Keith was ill from stomach cancer, but still hoped he would see him again on his show.

He then went on to talk about his years-long friendship with the country superstar, which he acknowledged was an unlikely pairing. “I was lucky enough to become friends with Toby over the years, as improbable as that seems,” Colbert said.

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In a sense, the two men represent opposite sides of America’s ideological divide: Keith’s music often reflected conservative views and occasionally jingoistic patriotism in songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” while Colbert is largely known for left-leaning comedy and satirization of Republican politics.

Colbert said that when Keith first appeared on his former Comedy Central series The Colbert Report in 2006, he didn’t expect much, and admitted to occasionally having “knives out” for some guests at the time. But instead, Colbert made an effort to welcome Keith, and the two men surprisingly hit it off.

“Right before I went on stage I remember vividly looking down at my shoes and saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re a host. He’s your guest. Make him feel welcome, see who he is,’” Colbert recalled. “And what do you know? We hit it off like a house afire. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed talking to Toby Keith.”

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 18: Singer-songwriter Toby Keith (L) and Stephen Colbert pose backstage at the Songwriters Hall Of Fame 46th Annual Induction And Awards at Marriott Marquis Hotel on June 18, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)

Keith seemed to enjoy his visit as well, leaving Colbert with a memorable compliment: “‘Hey man, you do a great job. Whatever the f–k it is you do.”

“And I took that as the greatest compliment,” Colbert said, adding that a writer on his staff had the phrase stitched on a pillow, which he keeps in his office.

“That day, Toby taught me to not prejudge a guest,” he told the audience. “And to have my intention, but to keep my eyes open to the reality of who they are. And for that lesson, and for a lot of other things, I’m always going to be grateful.”

Toby Keith would make many more appearances on Colbert’s shows, and the two became good friends. Colbert even helped induct Keith into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015, where the comedian also performed Keith’s “As Good As I Once Was,” a pre-show favorite of his.

During one appearance on The Late Show, Keith gave Colbert a guitar, which he said his son now plays: “I hope he’ll think of Toby when he does it,” Colbert said.

Colbert paid tribute to Keith’s remarkable life and career, noting that he rose from working on an oil rig in Oklahoma to become one of country music’s most successful entertainers, one whose music resonated with many Americans.

“Toby was a great performer, unapologetically patriotic, opinionated, brash, often controversial, but resonating with legions of fans by writing their lives in a very real and entertaining way.”

“I think he enjoyed how unlikely a pair we seemed,” Colbert said of their friendship. “I sure did. You know, like when people are excited when a duck and a horse are friends,” he joked.

While Colbert and Keith likely disagreed on many issues, Colbert said that Keith’s views and opinions could surprise you, and were more nuanced than his deep-red persona led on. He noted that Keith gave a standing ovation for President Obama in 2009.

“Toby taught me not to judge people too quickly,” Colbert said. “And with his passing, I’m going to try and remember that again. It’s something we all need to remember… More and more of us are angrier and angrier with each other. But tonight, I will issue this invitation to anybody: I do not care who you are, I will meet you at this place. I will meet you at being broken-hearted that Toby Keith is gone.”

“Thank you, Big Dog,” an emotional Colbert said, ending the segment with an “in memoriam” card.

Watch the tribute below:

It’s heartwarming to hear Stephen Colbert pay such a nice tribute to his friend Toby Keith. It’s a reminder that sometimes friendship transcends our differences.

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