From the beginning, Jeff and Novella Sherman sounded like contenders, a handsome young couple with the will to win and the ability to withstand almost any embarrassment that was destined to be dished out to them there in the middle of Prince George's Plaza. "It was hard to believe that there we were, on 'The Newlywed Game with Bob Eubanks,' " said Jeff Sherman, but there he was all right, answering such questions as, "How much does your wife's chest weigh," and "How far did you go on your first date" and "Where's the strangest, most unusual place you've ever made whoopee?"

In the end they walked off with the big one, the grand prize, the weekend for two in the Poconos, complete with $150 in spending money and the giddy glory of having told the whole world which one of Novella's friends Jeff would like to cuddle up to. They had been one of 400 couples who had applied for the honor of becoming one of the four finalists, and, in the past week, they had rehearsed answers to every inane question they could think of. And now they had won, having had the opportunity, as Jeff put it, "to do something that very few people ever get to do."For 30 minutes, they sat with three other couples in a row of metal folding chairs, under the neon lights of the gift shops and shoe shops and department stores, blushing and giggling but always game. "They're here to bare their souls for a toaster," Eubanks announced at the beginning, as he launched into a rapid barrage of predictable sexual jokes. "Novella," Eubanks said after the husbands had been taken out of earshot, "Jeff said your chest weighed five pounds, and I said I was sorry, and he said, 'Not as sorry as I am.' " And so it went, as if time had stopped and newlyweds were still what they were once supposed to be but probably never were -- travelers caught on the border between innocence and experience, learning the language of intimacy.

Actually, the whole thing seemed a little strange, a stray piece of the video past that had somehow drifted down into shopping center America. Nothing much had changed really, not the coy questions heavy on the sexual innuendo, not the delighted titillated twitters that rose from the audience. And not Bob Eubanks, trim, brown-haired Bob Eubanks, leering just like he always did when the show began 14 years ago, although some of those bouffant brides of the '60s are onto their third husbands by now, their illusions as faded as their wedding bouquets.

Eubanks is 43 now, and the hair color, he says, is courtesy of Clairol. He smiles a sleepy smile as he waits to go on, dressed in designer jeans and a dark blue shirt, a gold chain suspended above the gray chest hair, before he changes into a collegiate-looking striped sweater and dark slacks.

Eubanks has been doing malls since "The Newlywed Game" went out of production last February. The day before, he did a mall in Wichita, and there have been other shows in Philadelphia, San Diego, in malls all across the country.

Eubanks does radio commentary on rodeos as well, and there is talk of another TV game show, maybe, though he doesn't have the look of a man whose ego is in suspended animation until the klieg lights defrost him. "Everybody has a turn in this business," he says cheerfully. "I've had mine."

"I can't build anything, and I can't draw anything, but they can say, 'Here are four couples, go out and manufacture a half-hour of humor,' and I can do that," he says. "It's relatable humor, the kind that takes place in every home."

The humor has remained much the same, he says, though the institution has not. "Marriage did a total turnaround between 1974 and 1976," he says of the years "The Newlywed Game" was off the air before it went into syndication. "When we came back, more people were living together, the wives were working because they had to, not just for pin money anymore, and the men seemed much more threatened. All of a sudden it was the women who were saying, when we asked the making-whoopy question, 'Oh, he's always tired, he's moody, he always has a headache.' Actually, I happen to think that men are led around by women from the time they're born. We just put up this macho image as a front."

By 1 o'clock, Eubanks had revved up his voice to the standard mellow-toned, fast-talking game show host patter. He bounded into the center of the small area that had been cleared for the show while a crowd of several hundred pressed closely together under the watchful eyes of the mall merchants.

Soon the four couples were led onto the stage, variations on a theme of sheepish terror. Couple Number One were the Shermans -- Jeff, 30, and Novella, 29. They had gone together for six years before they were married last July at the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Washington. "Basically it was me," Jeff Sherman said in explaining the long courtship. "There were some definite things I wanted to do before I settled down." So Jeff got his college degree and bought the house in Hyattsville. and then he married Novella, who works for C&P Telephone while he works as an accountant for the FCC.

Couple Number Two was Howard and Paula Henderson. He's 25, she's 26, and they met in a shopping mall in Goldsboro, N.C., where he managed a shoe store and where she stopped for a moment to arrange her hair. "I told her it looked beautiful," he said, and they were married last December. They are expecting their first child in two or three weeks.

Couple Number Three, Steve and Eileen Tetreault, have been married a month and a half. He's a reporter for a Las Vagas newspaper chain, she's a copy editor, and when they entered the contest, dreams of new living room sets or color televisions were dancing in their heads. "We were really psyched," said Steve. "We'd stay up late at night counting the lamps in the living room, anticipating questions. When we found out the first prize was a trip to the Poconos, we got a whole lot more relaxed."

And then there was Couple Number Four, Joe and Cathy Graves, married nearly 40 years, but who's counting? They met at a church carnival. He was in charge of pitching pennies and she was in charge of the ferris wheel. And when she met him, she decided if she didn't get him she'd become a nun. But they did get married and, in the beginning, they made do on $38 a week. He's retired from the Government Printing Office, and they live close to the mall. So they come several times a week, strolling up and down the long corridors, looking in the windows, going to dinner at the Hot Shoppe or the Old World Inn, running into their friends. They have four children and 10 grandchildren, and when Eubanks asked Joe Graves how far they went on their first date, he said "about three miles."

The show went by in a blur, three questions to the men and four to the women. Everyone disagreed on which was the strangest place they'd ever made what Eubanks is pleased to call "whoopee." The Hendersons divided on the issue of whether he had a picture of her naked. (He said yes, she said no). The Tetreaults bit the dust on his most-annoying habit. In a half-hour, all that was left were the post-mortems.

"My wife's a little forgetful," was the way Howard Henderson explained their crushing defeat. "I am not forgetful," said Paula Henderson indignantly. "And you don't have a picture of me naked."

"I do so have a naked picture."

"I was not naked!"

"Ten dollars says I have three or four pictures of you naked."

"I was not naked."

"You were so!"

The only problem with real life is that there's never a commercial when you need one.