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Stephen Colbert Remembers Toby Keith Friendship: “He Taught Me to Not Prejudge a Guest”

On Tuesday, Stephen Colbert paid tribute to his late friend Toby Keith on The Late Show.

The host began the show by addressing the country music star’s death. “I was shocked and saddened when I saw the news this morning,” said Colbert. “I knew Toby was ill — he’d been fighting stomach cancer for some time — but I still had hope that we’d see each other again and that we would hear him on this stage.”

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Colbert then spoke about his first time meeting Keith in 2006, when the country musician was a guest on The Colbert Report, and how the two sparked a surprising friendship. “I was lucky enough to become friends with Toby over the years, as improbable as that seems. We met very early on The Colbert Report and back then, there was a not-so-helpful legend that I had knives out for some of my guests. It didn’t help that, at the beginning, I sometimes did,” Colbert said.

“I remember having some kind of plan for Toby, I think related to his ‘Boot in your ass’ song [‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)’]. But right before I went onstage, 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,'” recalled Colbert.

“And what do you know? We hit it off like a house on fire. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed talking to Toby Keith,” he continued. “And, evidently, Toby had a good time too, because after the show, I was headed to a postmortem meeting and he was coming out of his green room. Those rooms are on the same hallway. As he was heading for the door that goes down to 54th Street, he caught my eye and said: ‘Hey man, you do a great job. Whatever the fuck it is you do.’ And I took it as the greatest compliment.”

Keith’s words touched Colbert so much that his head writer Allison Silverman stitched the quote on a pillow as a Christmas present for the host. “It has been in my office ever since,” said Colbert.

Toby Keith and Stephen Colbert, holding the pillow stitched with Keith's quote, at the 2015 Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Toby Keith and Stephen Colbert, holding the pillow stitched with Keith’s quote, at the 2015 Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

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

Colbert then detailed Keith’s extensive accomplishments as one of country’s biggest names and shared other memories of times the late musician appeared on his show. In one of the most poignant anecdotes, Colbert noted that one of his “greatest honors” was when he had the opportunity to induct Keith into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015, performing a rendition of “As Good as I Once Was,” which is a Keith song he “used to listen to every night before going onstage.”

Keith died Monday evening at the age of 62, two years after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. His final performance was at the inaugural People’s Choice Country Awards in 2023, where he was also honored with the Country Icon Award.

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