120,000,000 Ylvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong
The exceedingly strange world of the "What Does the Fox Say?" viral-video sensations, costarring nosy Norwegian journalists, Paris Hilton, and Kathie Lee Gifford.
I’m standing in the rain outside the entrance to The Today Show, chatting with a hangdog Norwegian journalist about the inevitability of death and whatnot, when he ditches me mid-sentence to go pester Paris Hilton. She’s just sauntered out of a studio side entrance, so the scribe, Finn-Ove, scampers over to a clutch of maybe a dozen fellow Scandinavians who crowd around her, taking photos and firing off questions in angular English, which she answers not with words, but with a series of hip-jutting poses and hollow photo-frame model smiles.
“Paris!” one of the journalists yells as the heiress steps into a waiting SUV. “What do you think of Ylvis?”
She looks confused — the way she always looks, maybe — and disappears behind a tinted window to be ferried into the maw of midtown Manhattan traffic. But the great talent booker in the sky cannot abide a bizarro-celebrity vacuum, and in her wake another SUV arrives.
Out pop Ylvis, the Norwegian brothers Bard and Vegard Ylvisaker. The former is blond, the latter is brown-haired, and if you both squint and only have a passing interest in the works of Ron Howard, the two kinda look like the dashing Euro race-car drivers from Rush. Traveling alongside them are a roly-poly and jauntily scarved young lad, a dour manager-type, and two American publicists, all of whom stand behind Ylvis (pronounced Ill-vis) as they’re immediately swarmed by the eager pack of Scandi journos.
Boxed out by the Northlanders, I notice a bleary-eyed fella in camouflage pants and a homemade garbage bag/rain poncho combo surveying the scene. His name is Juan.
“Who dat?” Juan asks, gesturing toward the commotion.
I explain that Ylvis are the guys who made the “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” viral video.
Juan’s eyes brighten. “Like ‘Gangnam Style!'”
Basically, Juan. Like Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” the Ylvisaker’s video, which they made for the variety show they host back in Norway, and which went online September 3, combined very catchy, vaguely EDM music — the beat is by Norwegian production team Stargate, helmers of hits by Beyoncé and Rihanna — with xenophilic curiosity and a knowingly ridiculous video featuring plenty of woodland cavorting and furry costumes. The clip now commands north of 120 million YouTube views.
That number is sufficiently large to have earned the attention of talk shows (in addition to The Today Show, Ylvis hit Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on this trip and stopped by Ellen a few weeks earlier), and landed the brothers a gig at September’s iHeartRadio mega-concert in Las Vegas alongside monoculture standard-bearers like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake. Two days from now, on Saturday morning, the New York Times will run an in-depth article (“The Fox Says, ‘I Can Make You Famous.'”) The song itself has risen to No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100; the more bookish of the two publicists tells me that the boys are taking lots of meetings while in town.
All this hubbub has apparently filtered into Juan’s consciousness, since he makes a little baby-giggle noise and announces, “They’re famous!” He then does a ground-bound twirl, sings the song’s central question (“What does the fox say?!”), and then delivers, in a scratchy tenor, the same song’s answers to said question, which are, in order, Ring-ding-ding-dingeringeding, wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow, and hatee-hatee-hatee-ho.
Juan then staggers back to his spot in the queue outside the nearby Nintendo Superstore, where he’s been waiting three days to buy the new Pokemon game.
The fourth-hour hosts of The Today Show — the golden, shining Kathie Lee Gifford and adequately non-reflective Hoda Kotb — cannot be kept waiting, however. So the publicists herd the Ylvisakers away from the journalists and into the building. I’m briefly introduced to Bard, 31, and Vegard, 34, as we pass through the lobby’s glorious art-deco interior and down to the Today Show green room. A pert blonde segment producer greets Ylvis and asks if they need anything.
“The biggest wine glasses you can find,” says Bard with polite firmness. “It’s very important.” The producer asks for some additional clarity re: the preferred size of glass; Bard reiterates that he wants them as big as she can get. Vegard has produced a camera and is filming the interaction; TVNorge, the network that airs Ylvis’ show back home, had told the guys that they need to come back with some content for this trip to the States to be professionally feasible.
I take a seat on a green-room couch beside the roly-poly guy and introduce myself. Turns out he’s Bard and Vegard’s younger brother, Bart. He lives in Portland and flies helicopters for a living.
You like Portland, Bart?
“Yeah it’s good,” he says. “There’s good beer and good coffee. The girls aren’t so good. But if you drink enough beer, then the girls get better, and then you drink the coffee in the morning when you’re hung over. So it works out.”
A perfect system, even. I ask Bart how he likes tagging along with his brothers. The night before, they were at Fallon; after the Kathie Lee and Hoda pre-taping (the ladies don’t film on Fridays, bitches), they will sit for a lunch interview with me, then ascend to the Top of the Rock for a SPIN photo shoot, then head over to MTV, and then, as important people, take meetings. Tomorrow morning they’ll be back at 30 Rock at 6 a.m. to rehearse for a live performance on The Today Show, then do an interview with Matt Lauer and crew in the 8 o’clock hour, and then actually perform. On Saturday, they fly back to Norway to continue work on the third season of their show.
None of that is particularly interesting to Bart: “I like coming with and getting free food,” he says with admirable candor.
I will later buy him a $27 shrimp salad.
There’s a commotion behind us. Kathie Lee Gifford is coming.
“Where are my Norwegians?!” she shouts, standing sassily with her hands on her hips in the green-room doorway.
She stomps towards Ylvis. “I’ve been to Norway,” she says. “I went BASE jumping!”
“You can die doing that,” says Bard. He and Vegard offer handshakes.
“I’ll take a hug!” yells Kathie Lee. “I’ll take as much as I can get with my clothes off!” She winks at me as she says this.
Morning television’s most magnificent cougatron (eat it, Kelly Ripa!) then asks Bard and Vegard their names. She takes their answer with some slightly confused blinking, and then she turns to Bart.
“What’s your name?” Kathie Lee asks. “Shmurlaburla?”
Before a befuddled-looking Bart can fully engage, Kathie Lee has to get back to the show. We’re led to a second green room on a different floor. A different pert blonde segment producer has now appeared, and says that Today Show host and very important morning news personality Matt Lauer wore a pair of fox ears when he teased tomorrow’s Ylvis appearance, and this is a very big deal because “Matt never puts things on his head.”
Bard and Vegard, who have been mostly quiet so far, are whisked into yet another room as they wait to go on. I step into a hallway, and watch Kathie Lee and Hoda prep the viewers at home.
“I met them, and they’re adorable!” says Kathie Lee of Bard and Vegard Ylvisaker.
She also adds that she’d said hello to their brother, Shmurlaburla.
After the guys’ segment, we hustle down to the building’s concourse. We’ll do our interview over lunch. We find a place with cloth napkins and red-nosed waiters in maroon vests who serve, frankly, kinda skimpy-sized shrimp salads. Since MTV and meetings beckon, we get straight to it.
Are you guys raking it in now?
Bard: We should be. But we don’t understand how that works, to be quite honest. I would’ve assumed that that this should unleash a serious amount of cash.
Vegard: I heard some figures: To raise one million dollars from YouTube, you have to have 1.3 billion views. You don’t earn much money on record sales nowadays. I guess what people do is they promote themselves by doing this and practically give away the songs, and then you tour and make money there, because people have to pay.
You guys know that in all likelihood, this attention is a weird blip. How do you, you know, strike while the iron is hot?
Bard: I don’t know. It’s such a stupid thing, the “Fox” thing. Even though people find it interesting, it’s still a stupid fox song, and when people start to get over this, it gets even worse, because it is so stupid. So it potentially could be kind of bad for us, I think.
Vegard: People ask us, “How does it feel?” Always, “How does it feel? Blah blah blah.” Which is kind of difficult to answer without feeling cocky, because the feeling is always the same. You get used to strange things happening, you know? That’s how our days are now. Suddenly you get this invitation to go around the world — New Zealand, South Korea — and you sort of get used to that. You can’t go around one month and be startled every day.
You guys signed with an American management team. What was their pitch?
Vegard: Their biggest question for us is, “What do you guys want to do?” We got thrown in pretty abruptly, so we have to figure out our goal. It’s hard, because to know your goal, you have to know your opportunities. The management sort of projects different kinds of paths, and then we have to find out what we can do.
Bard: We are not that old, but we’ve been climbing the ladder in Norway for a long time. We have fans in Norway, and of course if we can travel the world and the U.S. and do what we love, that’s obviously very cool. But we’re not in a hurry, and if this ended tomorrow, we’d still have a great life.
A man resembling a bloated Gordon Ramsay approaches the table and starts speaking to the Ylvisakers in Norwegian. He walks away with a sour look on his puffy red punim.
Who was that?
Bard: He was a Norwegian journalist. He wanted to know who you were. We should’ve said you were Jimmy Fallon’s brother.
Ah, I’m not newsworthy. Anyway, go on.
Bard: We want to stay Norway-based for now. We don’t want to move. We have families. We used to live in Bergen, and we moved to Oslo, so we don’t want to travel again. When we do television or live performances, we haven’t decided yet. But the stuff we do back home — combine comedy and music and videos — if we get to do that, we’ll be happy.
Did you get a record deal out of this?
Bard: We’ve always had a record deal.
Vegard: There’s a lot of speculation that didn’t have any roots in reality. The thing that happened is that this song was not supposed to be a success, so we didn’t have the paperwork ready for it, but when it suddenly became a big deal, then we have to arrange these things. So, we already had an agreement with a record company, but all the parties had to agree on what was actually the deal. Then people started speculating that the reason why the song wasn’t on iTunes was that someone had accused us of forgery. No, not forgery? What is called with music?
Bard: Which is not true at all.
Vegard: That record deal was landed way before “Fox” — in the spring sometime. The deal is with Warners: Shake hands, do the paperwork. Then along came “Fox.”
Are you gods in Norway now?
Vegard: Norway’s very into the We’re all the same thing. There’s a very popular photograph of a previous king of Norway. It’s him taking the tram to go skiing in the woods. Just him. No bodyguards, no nothing, just the king on the tram. That’s how people behave in Norway. They don’t want people to be elevated.
Bard: Right now, Norwegians are kind of interested in us achieving success. There was a big thing when we said that we weren’t leaving our show. It was a big thing in the news where different experts talked about how important it was that we left, that we went to chase whatever we could, and had to do it now. Fellow comedians emailed us, and said, “We can take over your show; you have to go.” They wanted us to have big success for the good of Norway.
Vegard: When the whole comedian community in Norway gathers and says, No, we can do this for you — I appreciate it. Personally, it is kind of a big thing, because No. 6 on Billboard, it’s almost 30 years since that happened to a Norwegian: A-ha with “Take on Me.” It’s the only one that ever accomplished it.
Does this experience seem surreal?
Bard: This will always be extraordinary. This is temporary. But we might have an opportunity right now to maybe get a bigger audience for what we do in the future. We can’t say for sure, of course, but we’ll continue making stupid things.
Vegard: The leap is so peculiar, from zero to the top. [Norwegian singer-songwriter] Sondre Lerche is our friend, and he has been trying for years to make his way. I always thought it seemed so exhausting. I always thought, “I’m never going to do that.”
Bard: [Laughs] We thought we would wait for the explosion of a hit instead.
Vegard: What happened to us is really unfair to all those hardworking people out there working their asses off to get bigger meetings with people. We come sailing along with a stupid song about a fox.
Vegard: We had some meetings with different networks. Three, four years ago we came to observe and learn about what they do. We had some meetings again in L.A. in conjunction with the Ellen trip. We went to the same place, same network. I’m not gonna mention names, but we actually met some of the same people that we had met before. People that we recognized from the last meeting said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, because I couldn’t make it to that meeting.” They didn’t remember anything.
Bard: We have stupid lives right now.
Must be good material for your show though, right?
Bard: Not as much as we’d hope. From a comedy perspective, it’s not funny. Success is not funny at all.
Vegard: In our show last season, we went to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and tried to become pop stars there. The idea was that we’d never become pop stars in the U.S. or England, so we chose another country where it would be easier. We did all kinds of stupid things: performed at weddings. The whole humor is that we didn’t succeed and had lots of obstacles. The obstacles generated the comedy. Then suddenly we’re on this trip to America, the place people want to go, and there’s no obstacles. Every doorway is open … and there’s no comedy.
Bard: It’s disgusting.
Vegard: It’s cocky and disgusting.
Bard: We won’t make a sequel to the “Fox” song.
Vegard: It was kind of delicate, because we had a little struggle with TVNorge, because they said we have to get material to bring back. They’re kind of skeptical about us coming to America, but our ratings were up from 300,000 viewers to 375,000 or something. We also beat the competitors.
Vegard: Our competitor is a reality show called The Farm. The people on it live there isolated and they’re not supposed to have any technology. They grow their own food and stuff.
Bard: They deliberately schedule against us. They’re on a bigger network, TV 2. They try to smash us. This year we went to get them by sneaking onto the Farm set — it’s protected by guards. We went Navy style. It took 17 hours. We went in the middle of the night. We had to dive underwater to get there in ghillie suits. We were successful. It was so much fun. We left a present for the people on the show, candy and things.
Vegard: There was a guard dog at the farm. I used an old army trick: As a decoy, we had to piss in a bottle and spread the piss around. The whole operation started out with us on our knees, pissing in a bottle. After the Fallon show aired, a friend of ours from our show who did the mission with us sent us a message: “Congratulations with the Fallon show. It was awesome. It was funny to imagine 48 hours ago you were sitting on your knees pissing in a bottle.”
Bart yawns and pushes his half-eaten shrimp salad (which Bard had politely offered to pay for) away from him and checks his phone. His brothers have to leave for a photo shoot. Then it’s on to MTV, those crucial meetings, rehearsal, Today Show, the Times story, home.
“We just go where our manager tell us,” says Vegard, jokingly. “Does that sound ignorant?”
The next morning, Ylvis appears on The Today Show’s “What’s Trending” segment. Lovable weatherman Al Roker calls out the Ylvisaker brothers (Ylvi? Ylvas?), who stroll onto the studio floor for some light banter with him and the other hosts. One of those hosts, exceedingly rich media personality Matt Lauer, says to Bard and Vegard, “I don’t know whether to high-five you or have you arrested.”
A few minutes later, the cranially sensitive TV panjandrum is standing outside, wearing fox ears, to introduce Ylvis’ performance of “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?).”
The camera cuts to Bard and Vegard Ylvisaker, dressed in full-body fox costumes. They’re standing, accompanied by four female dancers, on a raised stage decorated with fake tree-stumps and tall LED light displays.
They start to sing.
The Today Show on-air personalities who are not Al Roker and Matt Lauer are shown dancing — really cutting loose — adjacent to the stage.
It’s 8:40 a.m. in America.