As a production crew readied the orange-and-tan set yesterday morning, in NBC's Nebraska Avenue studio Bill Munroe, moderator of "Meet the Press," and Carl Rowan and David Border, two of the day's panelists, stood nearby in a small circle, listening to Munroe's transistor radio.

They all wore faintly amused expressions. From the radio came Joseph Califano's voice, talking on ABC's "Issues and Answers" about the circumstances of his firing.

Hamilton Jordan, yesterday's guest on "Meet the Press," walked up to join them.

"Want to listen to the outgoing Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare?" Munroe asked drily.

"Not particularly," replied Jordan, stifling a grin.

Ten minutes earlier - and 10 minutes early - Jordan had walked in, dressed smartly in a dark blue suit and lugging a fat brown briefcase.

"Damn, he's got a briefcase full of documents," syndicated columnist Rowan remarked to his colleagues.

Jordan gladhanded a few reporters and some others who were standing around, offering each a "Hi, how are you?" drawling the "you."

Betty Duggert, the show's producer, rushed up, a happy look on her face.

"Who is that that makes nasty cracks about your always being late?" she said appreciatively. "Here you are early!"

"Aren't you glad we waited?" he asked amiably, referring to his canceled appearance last December. "It's an opportune time."

"A year ago or so, we might have had you in blue jeans," Duggert countered.

"Well,..." said Jordan, his words trailing off.

The camera crew, who had been waiting outside to film Jordan's arrival, began to drift into the back of the studio. Some had been in Nicaragua: "You wouldn't even know who was in charge," one man said to a colleague. "You could be talkin" to the mailman."

Jordan and some of the reporters continued to chat. They could have been alumni from different classes swapping friendly remarks at a reunion. They hadn't yet gotten around to unpacking the solemn expressions that would dominate on the air.

Judy Woodruff, an NBC correspondent who was waiting to interview Jordan after the program for a Nightly News profile, stayed close to her subject.

"If you hear a question from the audience..." somebody joked, "you'll know why."

Someone aksed Jordan if he were getting to play any tennis.

"Not in the last two weeks," he admitted. "I've been distracted. I'm afraid it's a permanent distraction."

As air time approached, Jordan took his seat on the set to allow still photographers a few shots. An NBC aide accommodatingly brought over the "Meet the Press" backdrop. Broder of The Washington Post, Rowan and John Dancy of NBC, the third panelist, all in gray suits, took their seats. Twelve minutes to go.

"I noticed the ground rules yesterday were bent a little." Rowan said to Jordan, regarding the president's supposedly off-the-record meeting the day before with reporters.

"Not by us," shrugged Jordan, "they were bent by people in your profession."

Gail Ruf, the state manager, came over and asked the participants for a voice-level check.

"I'm working on a few stupid questions," Rowan said into his mide with mock seriousness. "I'll be talking at this level."

"I'll work on some stupid answers," Jordan called across playfully from his seat facing them.

The small talk among Jordan and the panelists began to ebb. Their faces tensed up. Brief exchanges began and faltered - about the president's visit to Wolf Trap, the ground rules for his meeting with reporters the day before, and Jordan's favorable review of "Animal Crackers," which he had caught on TV the night before.

"No smoking during the program, please, and no talking," Ruf announced to the 16 guests seated to the right of the set.

At 20 seconds until air time, Jordan yawned and folded his hands calmly in front of the mike.

The four journalists peppered him with questions about the events of the past week. The fellow alumni were now inquisitors. The smiles barely flickered. Jordan, replying confidently, though not cockily, showed little self-doubt. Several onlookers agreed that he revealed a special talent for not taking direction as he sidestepped questions about the hows and whys of individual dismissals.

The 30 minutes went quickly. Jordan joked that he had trouble deciding which of the panelists deserved the greatest deference to age.

"I have a hunch it's that fellow on the end," he grinned, indicating Munroe.

He remained seated as Munroe's goodbye to the audience, taped an hour before, was played over the monitors. Then came the announcer's voice, informing the audience of upcoming interviews with Califano, Blumenthal and Adams.

Jordan leaned forward a bit.

"We've been getting you guys some interesting persons for your interviews," he said.

All was sweetness and light again. A few panelists, guests and crew members milled about Jordan's chair. One of them pointed to some forms that were stuck in Jordan's legal pad.

"These are your evaluation forms," he said with a grin. CAPTION: Picture 1, Hamilton Jordan, by Larry Morris - The Washington Post; Picture 2; Hamilton Jordan on "Meet the Press" set, by Larry Morris - The Washington Post