Someday, when college professors discuss the phenomenon of reality television (hush, you know they will), one theme just may be, “It’s all in the casting.”

No matter how fantastical the premise, how exotic the location or how small the bikinis, getting just the right “real” people is a surefire way to hook viewers. Just witness the star power of black-bearded Rupert Boneham on the most recent edition of “Survivor.”

The same is true in the world of TV home improvement. From Bob Vila to Ty Pennington, it takes more than knowing one’s way around a table saw to make compelling television out of remodeling a house.

On Discovery Channel’s newest entry into the genre, the Monday-night series “Monster House,” the characters just keep on coming, beginning with the host – Atlanta native, funnyman and part-time house-builder Steve Watson.

He combines ruddy good looks, cheeky charm, a cigarettes-and-whisky voice and a penchant for strange T-shirts (all of which seem to be from a quirky little department of Bloomingdale’s) as he cracks the whip as the de facto foreman of a group of builders/contestants charged with transforming an ordinary house into something outrageous in the space of five days.

Watson started off pitching in, but that’s gone by the boards. “When it was a new show,” he says, “we had no idea what the hell we were doing. We knew we were going to build some stuff, but what we were actually shooting, we never understood that.

“In the beginning, I’m working my butt off, working just as hard as these guys work. After about episode four, I tried to get out of bed for the Monday of show five. Back was all screwed up; my knee hurt. I’m like, “What’s wrong with me? I’m only 30 years old.’ I realized at that point that I can’t do it, because I have to be back next week.”

And if a nap during production is called for, that’s no problem. “We have become a society of installers,” Watson says. “We decide where to put it, and that’s it. Here, we celebrate craftsmanship and working with your hands. If they’re building a house next door to my house, I can sleep like a baby.

“I have actually fallen asleep on the site. I’ll find a room that’s nice and cool. You’ve got Skilsaws and chainsaws going, and I just lay there, “Aaahh,’ and sleep in peace.”

With a don’t-ask budget, the “Monster House” theme designs go way over the top, from spaceships crashing through ceilings to backyard volcanoes. Even with all this, most of the drama is among the builders, who often represent varying backgrounds, skills and work ethics as they try to finish the projects and win a tool package.

An early episode, “Medieval Castle House,” featured welder and fabricator Smilee Barnacle. With a gap-toothed grin and unique fashion sense, Barnacle puzzled his co-workers but ultimately charmed the audience.

“You look at someone like Smilee,” Watson says, “and you think, “That’s not really someone I understand.’ My mom said, “I loved him.’ I said, “Mom, would you let him in your house if he showed up and said, “I’m here to do a job”?’ She said, “Well, I would make a couple of calls.’ “You’re looking at him and thinking, “He’s a little bit weird.’ But you notice that he’s funny, he’s smart, he knows what he’s doing, and he works like a dog.”

“He drove me crazy, because he was out of his mind, but he was dedicated.”

At the other end of the spectrum is alleged electrician Justin Lawson of the “Old West House,” who, after spending three days trying to wire a plug, fessed up to his lack of electrical skills. There’s also fountain expert and landscaper Kent Willgues of the “Sultan House,” who seemed to find all sorts of things to do, as long as they weren’t finishing the tiling on the fountain.

“You’ve got people,” Watson says, “who, I believe, come on the show and think, with the magic of television, “I’ll go on the show, and they’ll do everything for me, so it will be fine.’

“The difference in Justin and Kent is the difference between someone who’s a slow person and just doesn’t have it together, and someone who’s actually pretty intelligent and is just trying to weasel his way out of doing work.

“I couldn’t get mad at Justin. Here’s a poor guy just out of his element. He had gotten himself in over his head, didn’t know how to deal with that. If someone’s just honest with me and says, “Look, I’m not really an electrician, but I’m strong.’ He tells me on Monday, that’s fine, I’ll wire up the house, I’ll make him carry stuff. He’ll be a stud. He’ll be fine.

“But he waits until Friday to be honest with me, and at that point, I’m out of patience, so, “It’s time for you to go.’ Someone like Kent, I have no patience for that, for making promises that you’re not even willing to try to keep, than making excuses like you’re hallucinating.

“If I had a month to build, we’ll get you some therapy. But I’ve got five days. If you’ve seen the show, you know what the requirements are, don’t come on here just to be on television.”

But it seems that Justin’s problems inspired the father/son contracting team of Bill and B.J. Parisi, who worked on the “Monster House,” airing Jan. 19.

“We watch TV together pretty often, actually,” says B.J. “The show came on, it was the Western house. One of the electricians was messing up, and they ended up kicking him off the job. I’m thinking, “They let him on there, think about what we can do.”‘

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-02-04 1232EST

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