Being a viral star can really wear you out. Just ask Ylvis, the Norwegian comedy duo whose ridiculously catchy EDM joke-jam "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)" has racked up more than 120 million YouTube views and cracked the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100. The night before we meet for a drink at a Manhattan hotel bar, they played till 2:30 a.m. at a hip Lower East Side club; three hours later, they hit the Today Show. "We're exhausted," says Bård Ylvisåker, taking a seat next to his older brother Vegard after they order matching glasses of white wine. "But, like, happily exhausted."
The brothers are a big deal in their native land, where their highly rated talk show, I Kveld med Ylvis, recently entered its third season. "The Fox," produced by Norwegian hitmakers Stargate (who've worked with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry and more), began as a promo for the show. "The idea was to make a pop song about a totally stupid subject," says Vegard. "Then we'd come back to Norway and say, 'We had the opportunity to do something big here, but we couldn't come up with anything better than what sound the fox makes. I'm sorry, we screwed this up!'"
Instead, their superbad gag became a surprise smash – the biggest U.S. hit by a Norwegian artist since a-ha's "Take On Me" in 1985, as a matter of fact. "To be Number Two after a-ha?" says Bård. "That's pretty sick."
They recorded "The Fox" – a song that mimics animal sounds with a faux-seriousness over grandiose Avicii-style synths – a few months ago with Stargate at Jay Z's Roc the Mic studio in New York. "I have these pictures in my head that I wish I could share with the world," Bård says with a grin. "Vegard and myself in the booth where Rihanna laid down the vocals for 'Diamonds,' and we're standing there screaming fox sounds. It was so surreal and absurd."
The brothers (who are both in their early thirties) have been famous in Norway since the early 2000s, when they began touring the country with their own variety show. At first, their act was masterminded by a production team that discovered them at a school play. "It was more cheesy, and nicer – no edge to it," says Bård, who remembers teaching himself to play Tenacious D songs in his downtime. A few years ago, they broke free. "Now we don't give a fuck," he adds. "We just do what we think is cool."
"The Fox" isn't Ylvis' first taste of online success. "Work It," a raunchy hip-hop tune they made to promote the first season of their talk show, earned about a million views after being picked up by Perez Hilton in 2011. "It was very explicit – very, how do you say, detail-oriented," Bård says. "We sing about the pH value of the vagina, stuff like that." Vegard shrugs: "We're nerds."
The brothers have had to adjust quickly to American-style fame. "It's really extraordinary for us, as Norweigian comedians, to come to the States and be taken seriously," Bård says. "Really strange." Fans have already started coming up to them on the street – a big change from their home, where people generally leave them alone. "In Norway, it's very important that you don't stick your head out," Bård says. "You should just be modest. It's like a polite North Korea, you know?"
They have no immediate plans to record an album to capitalize on the success of "The Fox," and they're just starting to think about a possible U.S. tour. "If we tried to fill up Madison Square Garden tomorrow, it would fail miserably, of course," says Vegard. "But it would be fun to try."
The morning after we talked, the brothers were flying back to Norway to tape their own twice-a-week show – still airing as usual even as they pop up more and more often on American shows like Ellen and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. "You get used to these strange, sick, unbelievable things actually happening," says Vegard. "This is how it's going to be – for a little while. There's probably going to be a frog song from Germany next week."
"And then we'll be stuck in Norway again," Bård says, laughing. "It's been fun, nevertheless."