So much for pomp.

Prince Charles, heir to the British crown, is funny. Really funny.

He looked a bit cramped at first, what with all the formality of a regal convocation. But the Prince of Wales, dressed in cap and gown, flanked by Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton, looked tradition straight in the eye, turned on his royal charm and brought down the house at the College of William and Mary today.

"I was thinking of visiting here last year," he told dignitaries and assorted stuffed shirts assembled to see him made a permanent fellow of the school, the only U.S. college that still operates under its original royal charter. "But I thought I would wait until 1981, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown. I thought . . . you would like to have a genuine redcoat in your midst."

It was like that much of the day for the self-effacing prince as he greeted would-be subjects in Virginia's Tidewater, onetime hotbed of colonial insurrection against the crown.

As if he were running for king, instead of being merely heir to the post, he worked the Williamsburg crowds for all they were worth. Secret Service agents grimaced has he drove into the jubilation of excited onlookers to press the flesh of admirers with the gusto of an American politician. But men cheered, the Union Jack waved and women were seen to swoon.

"Oh, I wish we had a prince," one female onlooker said. "I wish we had one like him."

Virginia is for lovers, and today there was nothing Virginia loved more than a touch of British royalty.

His few hours in Williamsburg this afternoon must have come as a relief for the prince, who started his day in the "formal tropical whites" of a Royal Navy commander, touring a NATO command and a Navy aircraft carrier in nearby Norfolk. A four-star U.S. admiral and a military band playing "God Save the Queen" greeted him along with a 21-gun salute at the Supreme Allied Command headquarters there.

After reviewing a 24-member Marine Corps honor guard, the prince helicoptered to the USS Nimitz, the 5,000-man aircraft carrier from which U.S. forces launched the abortive hostage rescue mission into Iran a year ago.

He arrived here shortly after noon, landing by helicopter on a campus soccer field where about 2,000 loyalists waited in a blustery wind, under a sky aching to rain.

As he walked from the craft, hands clasped behind his back, he was greeted with shrieks from onlookers, begging for a royal glance. But it was the Queen's Guard, a contingent of college students decked out in a blaze of Tory red uniforms and sealskin caps, that caught Charles' attention.

He conferred with the leader of the group, David Jenkins, a 20-year-old senior in government and religion, who was pounced upon later by the world's press for a hint of royal utterances.

"Um, er, er, um," stammered Jenkins. "He joked that that's one way to gain power, studying government and religion.I just said 'Yes sir,' and smiled."

The 32-year-old prince was heard to tell Dalton that he was "glad to be away from Washington, where he could be with the people."

Being with the people apparently was a concern of the State Department, Secret Service, and local police as well. The prince was followed closely by plainclothes agents. And changes in his visit here were made to minimize risks, possible because of heightened tensions in Ireland, where imprisioned IRA terrorist Bobby Sands was said to be very close to death as a result of his protracted fast.

Originally Prince Charles was supposed to receive his fellowship at the college's indoor arena before a potential crowd of 10,000. The location was switched to Phi Beta Kappa Hall, which seats 880.

Traditionally, royal visitors here are treated to a slow carriage ride down Colonial Williamsburg's main thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street. This time, Charles went by car.

But the expected crowds of 30,000 never materialized. Instead, the prince met with small groups at his various stops in the former colonial capital of Virginia where a onetime British subject named Patrick Henry denounced the Stamp Act.

"We're British and we can't get near him in England," said Fred Stone, an English engineer who managed to get a princely handshake shortly before lunch. "I told him we're going to be back" for his wedding July 29 to Lady Diana Spencer. "He said, 'I hope you can get a plane.'"

The prince lunched on crabcakes, beef tenderloin, asparagus and marinated mushrooms, with Dalton and other campus dignitaries. Apparently the strawberries in Cointreau were so good they delayed his departure for the convocation by more than 45 minutes.

There Dalton introduced him by saying, "Your coming marriage has set young hearts to pounding all across the colony." The unflappable Charles responded by telling the story of Mary, the college's 17th century namesake, who was but a mere 13-year-old when her father announced her marriage to William III, 12 years her senior.

She spent the whole day crying, said Charles, the allusion to his own marriage not lost on the giggling audience. "But there the similarity comes to an abrupt halt altogether," he said.

He later visited the restored Governor's Palace and was given a $22 silver starburst brooch, made at a local craft shop, for his intended.

Back at the college's dormitories, students preparing for final exams watched the prince's comings and goings from windows, hanging out Welsh flags and a sign reading: "Hi, Charlie."

"This is not the big event of the day," said one Kentucky coed. "The big event is the Kentucky Derby. And you're all invited to the party later."

The prince flew back to Washington instead, where he was entertained at a private dinner at the White House with President Reagan.

He is scheduled to leave Andrews Air Force Base tomorrow morning for a flight back to England, ending a three-day U.S. visit.