After comedians finish their sets, you might find them swapping stories with colleagues or maybe getting a bite to eat. But not Karen Rontowski. Not when she’s in Chicago.
After her headlining sets this weekend at Chicago’s Zanies, you may well find the self-styled psychic stand-up wandering around some of the Chicago area’s spookier locales.
“I haven’t made it to Bachelor’s Grove,” she said of the cemetery in south suburban Cook County where alleged ghost sightings have occurred. “But I have met a lot of security guards unexpectedly” — the result of lurking around haunted graveyards and asylums.
Both comedy and otherworldly pursuits have been part of her life since she was a young girl, Rontowski said.
As a child, she “consumed and memorized” her parents’ Bob Newhart, Steve Martin and Bill Cosby albums.
“I was telling jokes at a church talent show when I was young,” said Rontowski.
She never considered pursuing a career in comedy until college when she saw comedian Karen Haber perform. The Pittsfield, Massachusetts, native graduated college early and headed to Las Vegas, where Rontowski got a job as a cigarette girl at Caesars Palace.
A bellman introduced her to open mic nights at a local comedy spot and her future was set. She observed, improved and eventually made stand-up her career, performing at clubs around the country and on “Comics Unleashed,” “Late Night With David Letterman” and Sirius Satellite Radio.
Her interest in the paranormal also dates back to childhood, which was when she said she had her first telepathic experience. She and her family, including her older sister who had epilepsy, were at the beach. Fearing a seizure, Rontowski’s sister refused to enter the water until the family was about to depart.
“She’s doing fine until she screams, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have a seizure,'” recalled Rontowski, who grabbed her sister and — for some reason — instead of swimming to shore she leaned backward into a giant wave as it crashed over them. Later, Rontowski learned that had they headed to the beach, they would have been caught in the undertow.
She later asked her father, who was standing nearby, why he didn’t respond to her sister’s screams. He told Rontowski her sister didn’t scream. Her sister confirmed it.
“She said she froze. She never screamed,” Rontowski said. “I heard her panic in my head.”
Rontowski says her parents recognized she possessed a special kind of intuition and they encouraged it.
“I always had imaginary friends. I always thought I could move things with my mind. It hasn’t happened yet, but I always think it can happen,” she said, laughing.
Everybody is psychic, claims Rontowski, but not everyone develops their abilities. She has. And she parlayed them into a second career investigating hauntings and paranormal phenomena, which she recounts on her “Paranormal Karen” podcast. She also teaches a tarot course online at karenrontowski.com and does individual readings. She combines her passions in her “psychic stand-up show.” But at Zanies, she’ll deliver a traditional stand-up set.
“Come out ready to have a good time and leave your troubles at the door,” she said. “I’m silly. I’m going to make you laugh and we need that right now.”
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When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11; 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12; 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13
Where: Zanies, 1548 N. Wells St., Chicago, (312) 337-4027 or chicago.zanies.com
Tickets: $30, plus a two-item food or beverage minimum