The first episode of Stories from Norway begins straightforwardly enough: “On October 29, 2015, Justin Beiber gives a concert in Oslo. After one song, Beiber spots a water spill on the stage. He cancels the show and leaves the country. Hundreds of fans are left behind in despair. This is the story of what actually happened that day”. And it is… if what actually happened included a police trip to England where the officers were mauled by crazed Beiber fans and Beiber himself wandering around a construction site singing about how he wants to be an “average, boring, ordinary, normal boy” who thinks a cement mixer is an expresso machine.
The creation of acclaimed comedy duo YLVIS – Norwegian brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker – Stories from Norway is a documentary series examining real-life stories and controversies from Norway’s recent past. Subjects include the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream; the crisis in 1995 when a Norwegian science rocket travelled unannounced into Russian airspace and almost triggered a nuclear war; a look at world-famous cross-country skier Petter Northug, who was involved in an infamous drink-driving accident in 2014 (police dogs found him hiding after he fled the scene and he later received a 50-day stay in prison); and the controversial construction of a diving tower in Hamar.
It’s also a full-blown, all-singing and occasionally dancing musical. If you’ve ever wanted to see a small-town local council burst into song while giving their approval for a lakeside diving board, then this is the series for you. With interviews with the real people involved and no-expense-spared reenactments, it’s almost like a light-hearted version of Four Corners… only these investigations involve a lot more musical numbers.
While the stories are real – the series is billed as an “investigative musical” – the comedy often veers into the strange and surreal. In the scene in episode two after the council approves the diving board, the deputy mayor (played by Bård) visits the architect lined up for the job. He turns out to have a crazed obsession with making everything bigger, creates his designs on a giant etch-a-sketch and has a trio of back-up singers who make him a coffee in – what else? – a giant cup. But it’s also surprisingly informative. YLVIS may be having a lot of fun with these real-life stories, but they also stick to the facts. That small town diving board took seven years to build, ran millions of dollars over budget and became the most expensive diving board in the world.
This series is full of tunes it takes days to shake, which comes as no surprise. As comedians and variety show hosts in their native Norway, Vegard and Bård were responsible for “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say)”, which went to number 6 on the Billboard singles chart, was one of Time magazines’ top 10 viral videos of 2013 (it was second behind PSY’s follow-up to "Gangnam Style") and currently has just under 750,000,000 views on YouTube.
After a string of US appearances and a best-selling children’s book based on the song, Hollywood – or, at least, Comedy Central – came knocking. But while they enjoyed the LA lifestyle (the Norwegian press has them referring to living the “Entourage dream” over there), the working conditions were less than ideal. They struggled with the studio’s hands-on approach, and working with a number of producers and writers watered down their ideas, so while a pilot was eventually made, the brothers were less than happy with it. Eventually they returned to Norway, and when Comedy Central asked them back to add the finishing touches to the pilot, they never returned.
It’s hard to imagine Hollywood investing in a musical documentary focusing on the time Justin Beiber snubbed Norway. Their loss is comedy’s gain: Stories from Norway just won Best Comedy at Norway’s Gullruten (“Golden Screen”) Awards.
And while the songs are in English, there’s a self-effacing streak running through this series that feels specifically Norwegian (not to mention a joke where God himself tells a distraught local government member, “This is Norway. There’s always more money.”). Justin Beiber might have blown off his (notoriously devoted) Norwegian fans and fled the country after just one song, but he’s not a bad guy here; the show has just as much sympathy for the coddled superstar cut off from the real world as it does for the teenage girls who travel 13 hours on a bus to see him.
Then again, this episode does have an amazing real-life punchline that has to be seen to be believed. Maybe Bieber was in on the joke all along.
Watch Stories from Norway on Wednesday nights at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND. You can also watch episodes streaming right now at SBS On Demand.