McCarthy was born in Westfield, New Jersey. His mother worked for a newspaper and his father was involved in investments and stocks. McCarthy moved to Bernardsville, New Jersey, as a teenager and attended the Pingry School. He also attended the town's public school, Bernards High School, for part of a year.
In 1999, McCarthy married his college sweetheart Carol Schneider 20 years after they first dated. He later stated his reasons for tracking her down after they had drifted apart: "I ran into someone who said they had seen Carol and her boyfriend and they seemed really happy, and for some reason it bothered me for a week. I called her and asked her if she was really with this guy and asked her out for a coffee." In 2002, Schneider gave birth to a son,Sam. In 2005, the couple divorced. On August 28, 2011 he married Dolores Rice. They have a daughter, Willow.
In 2004, he announced that he had once had a serious alcohol problem, which began at age 12. In 1992, he entered a detoxification program and has been sober since.
In 2010, McCarthy was escorted out of an underground church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, for entering the site without documentation. He had been in the church on assignment for the travel magazine, Afar.
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