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“What’s the capital of Angola?” asks a young man, pencil poised over paper. Boy, these applications are tough.

On a grim and gray December morning made even less appealing by a cold rain, an incongruous gathering of bright young things are assembled in the swank opulence of the Omni-Shoreham Hotel. They have been drawn by the chance to be picked as a “castmember” on MTV’s The Real World. Next season, the video vérité program will be set in London, another cold, gray town.

And actually, there are no geography questions on the real application—it turns out that the guy unable to recall “Luanda” is doing a crossword puzzle to pass the time. Which he may find easier than passing this audition, for his next question is “What’s a Swedish rock band?” He seems unfamiliar with ABBA, and his buddy’s observation that “Ace of Base wouldn’t fit” meets with equal silence. “Another Swedish rock band,” the more with-it friend explains.

In fact, most of the people here seem far removed from the frantically trend-setting characters appearing on the music channel. This D.C. cattle call—er, open audition—is part of a nationwide search to find four MTV-Americans willing to give up all notions of privacy in exchange for free room and board for six months in an assuredly posh flat.

And what is MTV looking for? For one thing, only those in “the demo” need apply. The demo is that demographically desirous age range between 18 and 24. Older than that and, well, that’s why there’s VH-1. The unquantifiable key, though, according to Laura Folger, the U.S. casting director who is overseeing this search for Bunim-Murray Productions, the producer of the program, is “people the audience can relate to, from their own perspective or as a figure of fantasy.”

On that score at least, Mr. Crossword Puzzle qualifies. He and his pal have stationed themselves atop the hotel’s shoe-shine stand, a lofty vantage that places them above the common rabble and draws the repeated attention of many young women. Besides their commanding perch, the two share movie-idol good looks. When one of them strolls down the hall, every head in a row of giggling gals turns. “That guy makes me crazy,” pants one bothered babe under her breath.

The phrase “chance of a lifetime” is heard often. Mostly the conversation is the definition of small talk: “Donald Sutherland came to my restaurant this summer,” a woman discloses with breathless cool. “And I saw Kirk Douglas and Demi Moore where I volunteer.” She might have meant Michael Douglas, but it doesn’t seem worth investigating. One guy thinks he will gain acting experience from being part of a documentary. Folger reveals that these people are quickly weeded out.

“What’s your number?” is the universal greeting as the crowd grows and the wait stretches. One goateed fellow taking a long time to fill out the one-page registration form offers a philosophical response to the question: “It’s better not to have a number than to have a number, ’cause then you don’t know how long you have to wait—you can live in that bit of harmony for a while.” Such insights are the reason The Real World is both unwatchable and eagerly watched.

Syretha Smith is an attractive woman with long dreadlocks and a nose ring. She’s been watching MTV “since the fourth grade” (dear God, some of us are really out of the demo!) and has “always wanted to have something to do with MTV, in any capacity.” A musician and singer, she appreciates MTV’s “diversity,” and how it “encompass[es] everyone’s culture now.”

It was not always so. The early days of the channel were distinctly melanin-impaired. So it is not entirely coincidental that a stop in Washington should be added to this tour. In addition to having placed ads in such old-media outlets as Roll Call, people from the Congressional Black Caucus have been enlisted to help process the hopefuls through the long wait and short interview. When Folger points out that “I was really impressed with the young people from the Hill and also the general guys and gals,” she quickly adds, “especially from Howard U.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Crossword is revealing a hidden agenda: to get a date with Kennedy. “Not a Kennedy. The Kennedy,” points out the man who moments ago didn’t know who ABBA was. While he praises the VJ’s body, it is her mind that most intrigues him. This is because she is, he says, a “psycho-Republican.” Mr. Crossword works for a Democratic congressman and insists that “I don’t want to sleep with Kennedy, I want to take her out to dinner and discuss political philosophy with her.”

This leads to a strenuous discussion between Crossword and his pal, Tan Man, about rugby, tanning technique, the Troubles in Ireland and Bosnia, and having your every moment recorded.

“You won’t commit any felonies while you’re on videotape,” declares Tan Man.

“No, but a couple misdemeanors,” Mr. Crossword suggests brightly, then pauses, thinking. “They don’t cane you there, do they? I’m not going if you get caned.”

Now, an MTV show where all the participants were rigorously caned would certainly be a welcome addition to my viewing schedule. And perhaps not beyond the scope of the channel’s cutting-edge philosophy. But what does it say that these sons of power and privilege, gifted with brains and looks, are seriously considering becoming part of what is basically a mindless programming gimmick?

“Let’s face the facts,” says Tan Man sarcastically, “the real reason I’m here is that I can’t find any law jobs. Sixty-thousand dollars and three years later, here I am looking at MTV. Nice, huh? My parents are real proud.”