The Late Show‘s Stephen Colbert paid emotional tribute to his longtime friend country singer Toby Keith on Tuesday night (Feb. 6), describing the long arc of their relationship and sharing a special memento he keeps in his office to remind him of the man he affectionately referred to as “Big Dog.”
“I was shocked and saddened when I saw the news this morning,” Colbert said of announcement that the 62-year-old “Red Solo Cup” singer had died following a two-year battle with stomach cancer. Colbert said he knew the singer had been fighting the disease, but he’d held out hope that they would see each other again and that Keith would return to touring as footage of the star’s previous performances on The Late Show played behind him.
“I was lucky enough to become friends with Toby over the years, as improbable as that seems,” said Colbert, whose laser-sharp daggers of commentary are often aimed at bloviating right wing politicians and media figures — as well as other know-nothings from any side — suggesting that viewers might not have expected him to befriend a singer whose often jingoistic, red meat patriotic anthems seemed at odds with the host’s more liberal-leaning point of view.
Colbert said they met back in 2006 when Keith appeared on Colbert’s funhouse mirror “conservative” Colbert Report Comedy Central late night series. “Back then there was a not-so helpful legend that I had knives out for some of my guests,” said Colbert, admitting that he sometimes did. He recalled having “some kind of plan” to skewer Keith in a bid to send up the singer’s “boot in your ass” line from one of his most famous songs, 2002’s flag-waving, “Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American).”
“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 said he chided himself at the time. “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.”
Colbert said it seemed like Keith enjoyed the chat as well, because after the appearance, as they passed each other in the hall and Toby was headed out the stage door, he turned to Colbert and said, “‘Hey man, you do a great job. Whatever the f–k it is you do.’ And I took that as the greatest compliment,” the host said. Such a high honor, in fact, that his then-head writer had the comment stitched onto a small pillow as a Christmas present, which Colbert keeps in his office until this day.
“That day, Toby taught me to not prejudge a guest,” Colbert said of the country singer whose politics and persona were complicated and, friends and colleagues said in remembering him, more nuanced than they appeared. “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.” Later in the segment, Colbert hinted at Keith’s hard-to-pin-down persona by showing footage of the country star giving President Obama a standing ovation at the former commander-in-chief’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009.
Colbert paid homage to that complexity, calling Keith a great performer, unapologetically patriotic, as well as an “opinionated, brash, often controversial” figure who bonded with his many fans by “writing their lives in a very real and entertaining way.” The host then ran down tape of Keith’s many appearances on his show, including a 2015 spot where Toby handed over one of his acoustic guitars, which Colbert said his son plays to this day. The package also included tape of a cowboy hat-wearing Colbert inducting Keith into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2015, singing a “As Good As I Once Was,” a song Colbert said he used to listen to every night before going on stage.
“I think he enjoyed how unlikely a pair we seemed. I sure did,” Colbert said, comparing them to meme videos of horse and duck besties. “Toby taught me not to judge people too quickly. And with his passing, I gonna try to remember that again. It’s something we all need to remember.”
Colbert ended with a plea for patience and an attempt to understand each other during these highly divisive times, promising to meet anyone, no matter who they are, “at this place. I will meet you at being broken-hearted that Toby Keith is gone. Thank you Big Dog.”
Check out Colbert’s tribute to Keith below (begins at 1:00 mark).
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